IN OUR great land, where freedom of religious expression is supposed to be
an honorable pastime, something very sad took place last week. A group of
Muslim-American clerics and community leaders felt the need to call a press
conference in Jersey City to declare that members of their faith were not
ruthless killers.

It was a pathetic moment. But it was necessary nonetheless after a week of
continuing rumors that the brutal murders of four members of an
Egyptian-American family in Jersey City was the work of Muslim extremists –
indeed, that the act was a ritualistic execution of Christian “infidels” by
Islamic enforcers.

Police were quick to say that there was no credible evidence to back up
such rumors. But it did not matter. When you mix a real murder with
centuries-old fears of religious extremism rooted in the old ways of an
ancient Middle East homeland, strange things can happen on an American street.

Consider the scene outside an Egyptian Coptic Church on Jersey City’s
Bergen Avenue last Sunday. Two days earlier in a nearby home, police
discovered the bodies of church members Hossam Armanious, 47, his
37-year-old wife, Amal Garas, and their daughters, Sylvia, 15, and Monica,
8. By Sunday night, hundreds of Egyptian-American Copts stood outside the
church while members of the American Coptic Association announced that the
murders were really an “execution” similar to those by anti-American
terrorists in Iraq…

None of the reports on Copts.com carried a single credible source for its
information, not even a name of a police official. But it did not matter.
At this point, the line between rumor and fact had blurred so much that
even the most casual observer could be forgiven for believing that that the
mere rumor of a gang of Islamic killers on the loose had become gospel
truth. In fact, casual observers could be forgiven if they missed some key
facts amid all the rumors.

Consider the autopsy results, released Tuesday. It turns out, for example,
the Sylvia’s cross tattoo on her wrist had not been touched. Wrist tattoos
are common among Coptic Christians, so this was important news. So was the
news that none of the cross tattoos on the other family members had been
defaced by the killers.

As for throats being slit – well, that was not exactly true either. It
turns out that none of the victims’ throats had been slit. Each member of
the Armanious family had been stabbed in the neck, head and torso, but
their throats had not been slit in some sick ritualistic execution.

It may seem like a small point – the family, after all, had been viciously
stabbed. But the throat-slitting rumor helped fuel the contention that the
murders were the work of Muslims following some misguided interpretation of
the Koran…

Against this backdrop came the mid-week press conference with Muslim
clerics and other Islamic-American community leaders seeking to put an end
to rumors. The event was billed as an “interfaith solidarity” news
conference, but invited representatives of the Coptic community could not
attend. They said the press conference took place during one of their own
religious holidays.

And so a moment to dispel rumor was lost. “We need to build more trust,”
said one of the Islamic leaders.

Well said. But for now, on this case, trust is still just a rumor


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