It’s sad that my columns that surround two of the most sacred and joyous feasts in the Christian calendar this year, Christmas and now Easter, are marred by the necessity to report on the terrible suffering of our fellow Christians from the ancient Church of Egypt.
As Coptic Christians gathered to celebrate the beginning of Holy Week on Palm Sunday at Saint Mark’s Cathedral, in the coastal city of Alexandria the historic seat of Christendom in Egypt, an ISIS suicide bomber detonated himself in the second of two attacks that killed more than 16 worshipers and wounded 41 others. It could have been much worse had it not been for the courage of three hero police who stopped the man in the blue pullover trying to enter the church unnoticed. They instructed him to pass through the metal detector where he exploded the bomb outside the building. Should it have happened inside the church, the death toll would have been much higher. The dead officers were named Ahmed Ibrahim, Brigadier General Nagwa El-Haggar and Emad El-Rakiby.
Inside the church was the leader of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, who was presiding at the service but was able to escape unharmed because of the professionalism and bravery of the fallen officers.
The other bombing was even worse because the ISIS bomber was able to get into the Church of Saint George in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, killing at least 27 people and wounding 78. The terrible scene was caught by camera crews that recorded footage that showed people gathered around what appeared to be lifeless, bloody bodies covered in papers. An eyewitness reported, “Deacons were the first to run out of the church. Many of them had blood on their white robes.”
Egypt’s Coptic Christians are one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East. Saint Mark founded the Church in Egypt around 33AD and by the year 300AD Alexandria was clearly one of the great Christian centers of the ancient world. The great Christian apologists Clement of Alexandria and Origen lived in that city, where they wrote, taught and debated. The Church of Egypt gave birth to monasticism with the development of the rule of Antony of Egypt and the Desert Fathers.
The Copts were largely supportive of the military overthrow of the Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013 and have thus incurred the wrath of many of his followers, who continually attack churches and other Christian institutions. The Copts have long complained that they are being targeted by various forms of discrimination by the government and outright persecution by various extreme Muslim groups.
Pope Francis was informed of and decried the massacre in Egypt during his Palm Sunday Mass in Saint Peter’s Square. The pope made his remarks after he remembered the victims of the Stockholm attack three days before. He expressed “deep condolences to my brother, Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic Church and all of the dear Egyptian nation.”
Pope Francis was about to travel to Egypt and stated that these criminal acts will not deter him. He asked God “to convert the hearts of those who spread terror, violence and death, and also the hearts of those who make, and traffic in, weapons.”
At the liturgy for Palm Sunday, Pope Francis prayed for all men, women and children who suffer, saying, “He (Jesus) is present in our many brothers and sisters who today endure sufferings like his own: they suffer from slave labor, from family tragedies, from diseases. They suffer from wars and terrorism, from interests that are armed and ready to strike. Women and men who are cheated, violated in their dignity, discarded.”
Israel sent its condolences to the Christians in Egypt. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “The world has to come together and fight terrorism everywhere.” Even Hamas in Gaza condemned the double bombings. Turkey’s presidential spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin stated, “We strongly condemn the heinous terror attacks on churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday today.”
Turkey’s Mehmet Gormez, the head of religious affairs in Turkey said, “The immunity of a place of worship, no matter the religion it belongs to, cannot be violated and the bloodthirsty killing of innocent worshippers cannot ever be forgiven.”
These terrible events challenge our joy at Easter. But we know that the forces of evil will not prevail! For Christ is Risen! He is the hope and inspiration of all who believe. Let us pray for our suffering Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East, let us not forget or ignore their suffering. And let us pray for the safety of our Holy Father as he goes to visit our suffering brothers and sisters in Egypt.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.