FP Explainer

Why Do Coptic Christians Celebrate Christmas on a Different Day?

Because they're using a different calendar.

Violent clashes broke out this week between Coptic Christians and Egyptian security forces, following a New Year's Day suicide bombing at a church in Alexandria that killed 21 people. Copts blame authorities for not taking the escalating violence against Egyptian Christians seriously. Authorities are now on high alert in anticipation of more violence on Jan. 7, when Copts celebrate Christmas. But why do the Copts celebrate the Christmas holiday on a different day from Western Christians?

Because they're still using the Julian calendar. Like the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia, the Copts still use the Julian calendar adopted by Julius Caesar in 45 B.C. The Julian calendar has 365 days, with a leap year added every four years, but each year is about 11 minutes too long, meaning that over time it has come to be out of sync with the more accurate modern Gregorian calendar, named for Pope Gregory XIII. So though Egypt, including its Coptic citizens, currently uses the Gregorian calendar for most other affairs, Christmas will still be celebrated on Jan. 7 -- for at least the next few decades.

Although they agree on dates, there are crucial differences between the Coptic Church and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Egyptian Christianity dates back to the founding of the Church of Alexandria by St. Mark in 43 A.D., making it one of the world's oldest continuous Christian denominations. The Copts' distinct identity comes from their rejection of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which put forth the notion that Christ had separate divine and human natures. Those who rejected the concept, believing that Christ had one unified nature, were referred to as "Monophysites," though modern Copts reject the term as insulting and inaccurate. Those who accepted the council were called Dyophysites. The descendants of the anti-Chalcedonians are today referred to as the Oriental Orthodox Church and include the Copts as well as the Ethiopian, Syriac, and Armenian churches and a few others. What's today referred to as the Eastern Orthodox Church -- which includes the Russian and Greek churches and is distinct from the Oriental Orthodox Church despite the similar names -- split off from Western Catholicism later.

In recent decades, relations between the different branches of Orthodoxy have improved, including agreements on the recognition of joint marriages and baptisms. Some church leaders hope the Orthodox branches of Christianity will eventually unify into a common hierarchy, though that's still a long way away. The Coptic Church maintains its own distinct clerical heirarchy, currently led by Pope Shenouda III.

While the Coptic Church's relations with other Christian denominations have substantially improved, Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt, where Christians represent about 10 percent of the population, are at a low point. Six Copts and a Muslim security guard were killed in a shooting at a church in Cairo last Coptic Christmas. Two Christians were later killed in protests over a church permit near Cairo. The comments of some Coptic leaders, such as one bishop who suggested recently that verses were added to the Quran after the Prophet Mohammed's death, have also inflamed tensions.

The violence is reminiscent of the frequent attacks against Copts in the late 1990s, though using bombs against churches is a new tactic. No group has yet taken credit for the most recent attack, though an al Qaeda-linked group threatened the Egyptian Copts after an attack on Iraqi Christians in November.

Thanks to His Grace, David, General Bishop of the Coptic Archdiocese of North America.

AFP/Getty Images

FP Explainer

Why Do Diplomats Still Send Cables?

To keep a record and advance their careers.

WikiLeaks' release of nearly 250,000 U.S. State Department cables has given the public a rare look into the inner workings of American diplomacy. The files document everything from the U.S. take on Turkish foreign policy to accounts of meetings between U.S. and Chinese diplomats on North Korea's nuclear program, to instructions for intelligence gathering at the United Nations. The cables provide the media, scholars, and foreign governments the kind of access that they normally don't get until decades later, but also raise the question of why, in the era of modern communications, U.S. diplomats are still using a format left over from the days of the telegraph. Why does the State Department still send cables?

It's a combination of factors, including record-keeping, secrecy, and career advancement. Of course, State Department "cables" aren't actually transmitted by cable anymore. They've been transmitted electronically since the early 1970s. But the format and protocol for these transmissions remains largely unchanged since the Cold War days.

The concept of secret diplomatic communications dates back to the birth of modern diplomacy during the European Renaissance, when ambassadors would send correspondence back to their home governments in sealed diplomatic pouches that could not, by law, be opened. The inviolability of diplomatic pouches is still enshrined in international law.

The development of undersea telegraph cables in the late 19th century made for much faster communication. Yet because of the high cost of sending and encrypting sensitive telegrams, longer reports were still sent by diplomatic pouch, while telegrams were used for shorter messages. Deputy Moscow mission chief George Kennan's 1946 description of "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" -- probably the most famous cable in U.S. diplomatic history -- became known as "The Long Telegram" because at over 5,000 words, it initially annoyed the penny pinchers at Foggy Bottom.

These days, embassy officials use cables to describe important meetings, analyze political trends in the countries where they are based, and make policy recommendations. Cables are easily encryptable and allow the State Department to keep a permanent record of diplomatic efforts. These documents are typically declassified after 25 years. Although most diplomatic cables end with an ambassador's electronic "signature," they are quite frequently written by lower-level staffers and often haven't even been seen by the ambassador in question.

Readers of the WikiLeaks document dump might be surprised by the level of descriptive detail and the writerly touches in many of the cables, which often read more like travelogues than bureaucratic memos. (See this colorful description of a Dagestani wedding attended by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.) Well-written cables are one way for low-level officials in distant embassies to make a name for themselves back in Washington and are often crafted for maximum impact. Foreign Service veterans cite Lawrence Eagleburger, a former ambassador to Yugoslavia who was later secretary of state, and Christopher Ross, a former ambassador to Algeria and Syria who is now U.N. envoy to Western Sahara, as prominent diplomats whose cables were must-reads at Foggy Bottom. But in the age of information overload, cables are increasingly just one of the many ways -- from email to "open-source intelligence" on the Internet -- that officials in Washington keep up with developments in the field.

Diplomatic cables include detailed routing information indicating who should be given access to them. Those are the abbreviations like "OVIP," "PREL," and "PGOV" you see at the top of the WikiLeaks documents. (For more, check out this useful guide to reading cables from the National Security Archive.) There are also classification levels ranging from "Unclassified" to "Top Secret." None of the documents released so far by WikiLeaks has been marked Top Secret, likely indicating that whoever leaked them only had secret-level clearance. Many of the leaked documents are also marked "NOFORN," indicating that the information they contain is not to be shared with foreign governments.

Since 9/11, in an effort to promote information sharing, embassies have increasingly been uploading diplomatic cables onto a database known as SIPRnet, which is accessible to military personnel as well as State Department staff. That means that the cables in question were accessible to any of the 3 million soldiers and officials holding secret clearance, including, presumably, WikiLeaks' source.

In the wake of "cablegate," President Barack Obama's administration has ordered the State Department to review its information-sharing procedures to prevent future leaks. In an age of information openness, the secret diplomatic dispatch -- the preferred tool of international statecraft for five centuries -- may have become a liability.

Thanks to Charles Hill, diplomat in residence at Yale University, and Marc Ginsberg, former U.S. ambassador to Morocco.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images