The Islamic State has claimed another Christian victim.
And Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church has won another martyr.
“We are telling our kids that their grandfather is now a saint in the highest places of heaven,” stated Peter Salama of his 62-year-old father, Nabil Habashi Salama, executed by the ISIS affiliate in north Sinai.
“We are so joyful for him.”
The Salamas are known as one of the oldest Coptic families in Bir al-Abd on the Mediterranean coast of the Sinai Peninsula. Nabil was a jeweler, owning also mobile phone and clothing shops in the area.
Peter said ISIS targeted his father for his share in building the city’s St. Mary Church.
In a newly released 13-minute propaganda video entitled The Makers of Slaughter [or Epic Battles], a militant quotes the Quran to demand the humiliation of Christians and their willing payment of jizya—a tax to ensure their protection.
Nabil was kidnapped five months ago in front of his home. Eyewitnesses said during his resistance he was beaten badly, before being thrown into a stolen car. It may be that these were kidnappers, because in the video that shows Nabil’s execution, he said he was held captive by ISIS for 3 months and 11 days.
On April 18, he was shot in the back of the head, kneeling.
“As you kill, you will be killed,” states the video, directed to “all the crusaders in the world.”
It addresses all of Egypt’s Christians, warning them to put no faith in the army. And Muslims which support the Egyptian state are called “apostates.” Two other Sinai residents—tribesmen who cooperated with the military—are also executed in the video.
Peter said that in the effort to drive Nabil from his faith, his teeth were broken.
His daughter Marina joined in the tribute. “I will miss you, my father,” she wrote on Facebook. “You made us proud…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on April 19, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.
This article was first published in the Summer 2019 print edition of Light magazine, produced by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
In January, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt stood side-by-side with Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Inaugurating the Cathedral of Nativity, the largest church in the Middle East, he uttered two remarkable words that reverberated through the national broadcast to Muslim homes throughout the nation.
If some Christians find this phrase under siege in America, they have no idea the power unleashed by the president’s words. Eight years earlier, emboldened by the Arab Spring and empowered by the Muslim Brotherhood presidency of Mohamed Morsi, ultra-conservative Salafi Muslims sparked nationwide controversy by declaring no pious Muslim could utter the words.
Their point was theological—Christmas celebrates God becoming man in Jesus, and a Muslim cannot congratulate a Christian neighbor for such blasphemy. But the impact was social. Easygoing Egyptians had long wished each other good greetings on respective religious feasts. Salafis are better practicing Muslims than we are, many would admit, and a chill began to spread in community relations.
When then-defense minister Sisi overthrew Morsi following widespread protests against his rule, he did so with Pope Tawadros—and the head of al-Azhar, the leading Islamic institution in Egypt—standing nearby in support. As president he became the first to attend a Christmas mass, a practice he has continued. He speaks strongly about the rights of Christians and their place in the nation. And in building a new capital city he made sure the centerpiece landmarks would be the region’s largest mosque and church, built side-by-side. There is no Merry Christmas controversy today.
But do Sisi’s words fall on deaf ears? Are the arms of the state too weak? Or might he be of double mind, grandiloquent in gesture, apathetic in implementation? Two other church examples counterbalance the cathedral…
Please click here to download the print edition; my article is on page 54.
My wife had just dropped off our kids at the local Coptic Orthodox Church we attend in Cairo and sat down with her Egyptian friend at the adjacent church-owned cafe. After initial pleasantries, she spoke of this current article I was then researching.
“Oh, do Americans have Sunday School also?” inquired the mother. “I never knew.”
My wife and I have lived in Egypt for nearly nine years and consider ourselves of evangelical faith. But we wish also to learn about ancient Christianity and, to the degree possible, worship within the Coptic Orthodox Church, which many Protestants here respectfully call “the mother church.”
We have been impressed by their biblical fluency. We have marveled at their forgiveness after martyrdom. But to entrust our own children to them?
We have been blown away by their care for the next generation. It takes two years of training to even teach a kindergartener.
It was not always so, and they have the Americans to thank—sort of.
This article is about Habib Girgis, the recently canonized Coptic saint who doubled as a humble educator. This past month the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrated the 100th anniversary of what he set in motion: the Sunday School Movement.
Girgis lamented the situation of his time, when Western missionaries were making inroads among the Copts.
But then again, they left fallow their own fields:
“Is there among us anyone who is capable of responding to those who ask him about his religion and why he is a Christian?” Girgis asked in a student lecture four years later.
“I am sure that most of us do not have an answer, except to say that we were born from Christian parents and hence we are Christians.”
Please read the article to see how Girgis sparked the solution, but spark it he did. Today the Coptic Church is among the most devout in the world. Here is testimony from one of Girgis’ disciples, who carried forward his teacher’s reforms once he reached the highest levels of the church:
Looking backward eight decades, the beloved Pope Shenouda III, known as “the teacher of generations,” described the solution with primordial imagery.
“Our teacher … started his life in an age that was almost void of religious education and knowledge,” said the patriarch, who died in 2012.
“Then, God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And the light was Habib Girgis.”
Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.
And if you are interested in an earlier post, excerpting a book review on Habib Girgis, please click here.
Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church was known as the ‘teacher of generations.’ I had the privilege of attending the beloved 87-year-old deliver one of his Wednesday weekly sermons back in 2010.
Five years later, in post-revolutionary Egypt, I watched his successor Pope Tawadros continue the tradition. He preached on Esther, and for unrelated reasons, a mini-protest broke out.
Now in 2018, for the first time I have noticed the weekly sermon translated into English, provided by the Coptic Media Center.
I am not certain if this will become a new tradition, but if so it will be fitting. The Coptic Orthodox Church is international, with many English-speaking congregations in the US and Canada (and the UK).
For those interested in the spirituality of the Coptic pope, here is an excerpt from his text. Pope Tawadros spoke on Mark 10:46-52, the story of blind Bartimaeus.
It is entitled: What Do You Want Me to Do for You?
Lessons we can learn from the story of the blind man for our spiritual journey:
1. Be persistent in prayer: don’t stop asking God for help, with patience & confident faith. Continuous crying out (praying) demonstrates a strong need for help.
2. Jesus hears your prayer from amongst the crowds: your short & simple prayers are heard by Christ and He responds to them.
3. The #1 goal of Satan is to prevent you from reaching Christ: just as the people tried to prevent/discourage the blind man from reaching Christ, Satan does with us when we are praying. FOCUS on the goal: to reach Christ, & do not listen to thoughts of doubt – your own or others’.
a. Remember the miracle of the demon-possessed man who was also blind and mute? (Matthew 12:22) It reveals that sin denies a person 3 things: thinking about Christ, talking to Christ, and seeing Christ.
4. Throw away anything that stands between you and God: be ready to QUICKLY detach from things, habits, etc. God reveals to you to let go of.
5. The importance of your will: “What do you want Me to do for you?” shows that God not only respects your will, but that your CONSENT IS NECESSARY to allow God to work in your situation.
6. You are a partner with God: God will give you the ability to do what is needed to do, but you must participate with your faith, your repentance, your prayers, your persistence, and your will.
7. Be definitive in your prayer request to Christ: Imagine if the blind man’s response to Christ had been, “I want some money,” or “I don’t know what I want,” that would have been a wasted opportunity. Go to Christ prepared, knowing what it is you want Him to do for you.
8. Follow Jesus after He heals you: after Jesus heals/helps you, will you follow Him?
Click here for the full sermon on the Coptic Spokesman’s Facebook page.
In what is being called the largest terrorist attack in modern Egyptian history, over 235 people were killed at a village mosque. Militants detonated explosives as worshipers exited the Rawda Mosque in Bir al-Abd, 25 miles west of the North Sinai capital of Arish. Several then fired upon the fleeing masses.
There has been no immediate claim of responsibility, but suspicion falls upon the Islamic State. The Rawda mosque is affiliated with the Gaririya Sufi order, and ISIS has previously vowed to attack what it deems to be heterodox Muslims, warning them to stop their distinctive rituals. ISIS represents an extreme Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, and is offended by Sufi practices that seek a mystical connection with God through chants and visits to the shrines of Muslim saints.
In 2013, a Sufi shrine was bombed with no casualties. But in 2016 two prominent Sufi sheikhs were kidnapped and decapitated.
Coptic Christians, who have seen over 100 people killed under an ISIS vow, responded with condemnation and sympathy. The next day, Saturday the 25th, the Coptic Orthodox Church spokesman announced all churches in Egypt would ring their bells in solidarity at noon.
“We pray to God that Egypt is preserved from such unprecedented brutal terrorism,” the church announced in its first statement, released shortly after the bombing. “We offer our sincere condolences to the families of the martyrs, praying for the healing of all who are injured,” stated the second announcement about the bells.
Such a public display of Christianity will only further infuriate ISIS…
Please click here to read the full article at Providence Magazine.
“On a day like today,” Fr. Samaan Shehata was murdered in Cairo. The day was October 12, but he likely read those very words in mass just one day earlier, introducing the lives of the saints.
Hunted down and stabbed repeatedly by a Muslim extremist, his name now joins their list. Dozens have preceded him in the last few years alone, gunned down in a bus, bombed in a church, beheaded in Libya.
Godfather to Shehata’s children, Fr. Yuannis Anton said these deaths are a “tax” that Copts must pay for the peace of the church and nation. These are difficult days for Egypt, he said, and the fight against terrorism is a fight for stability.
“In the language of the church, it is our cross to bear,” he said. “But we pray with Jesus not to hold this sin against them. We are not angry nor ask for vengeance, this is not our spirit.”
Similar stances have repeatedly wowed the world as Coptic faithful forgive their enemies. But even when their call instead emphasizes justice, there is an odd sense of jealousy that indwells many in the community.
“I wish I was with him, and lost my life with him,” Fr. Biemen Muftah told C-Sat, who was with Shehata at the time of the murder. “I wish I was as ready as he was, and could be in the place he is now.”
Choking back tears, he said, “We have lost a good priest on the earth, but gained the best intercessor in heaven.”
It is these intercessors Copts learn about “on a day like today,” every time the mass is celebrated.
Called the Synaxarium, the liturgy features daily hagiographic biographies of the celebrated saints of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Read after the Acts of the Apostles and before the Gospel, it features 726 entries, 237 of which involve martyrdom. In daily readings, nearly half the year encourages the faithful to suffer even unto death…
Please click here to read the rest of the article at Providence Magazine.
The images are horrific. Fr. Samaan Shehata, a 45-year-old Coptic Orthodox priest lay dead on the ground, stabbed and beaten by a young man wielding a meat cleaver.
Blood dripped down his face into his long, black beard. Dirt discolored his flowing, black robe. His cross pendant rested peacefully on his chest, eerily imitated in the cross-like stabbing etched onto his forehead.
Many details remain unknown, but early indications point to extremism. Fr. Samaan was from Beni Suef, visiting a family in Cairo 150 kilometers north in a lower-class, urban suburb of Cairo.
It may well be he was targeted only for the clothes he was wearing – in Egypt, a clear indication of his religious profession.
He was left a public spectacle. So far, no claim of responsibility, no message of intention. There are possible hints circulating of mental instability.
Perhaps. Outright murder is rare in Egypt. Despite the increased terrorism suffered by Copts in recent years, this killing is unusual. There is a chance it was random.
But few think so. Coptic social media immediately proclaimed Fr. Simaan a martyr, adding him to the growing scroll.
The image, however, may have lasting effect, reinforcing a decades-old message: The streets are not the place for priests…
Please click here to read the rest of the article at World Watch Monitor.
At least in urban and suburban America, it seems like Copts are everywhere. There is an
Orthodox Church a town over from where I grew up in New Jersey. I played soccer with an Egyptian Christian in high school.
Strange to think then, the church in North America is only 39-years-old, today.
Technically that is not quite true. The first weekly liturgy was held over a decade earlier in 1964, and spiritual meetings began in 1959, if not earlier.
But on September 8, 1978, St. Mark’s became the first Coptic Orthodox church built in North America, in Toronto, Canada.
The story is simple, and as a North American who has received much Coptic kindness, I am glad to report my continental forefathers helped along the way.
Elias Wagdy Abdel-Messih, who came to the US to study ethnomusicology, met with other prominent Copts and helped organized the first meetings in New York. By 1961 they drew together the first wave of Coptic immigrants from across the eastern seaboard, and celebrated Easter in a small town in Pennsylvania. That same summer in Chicago the Coptic American Association was established during a conference in Chicago.
Fr. Makary El-Souriany was dispatched from Egypt on repeated visits, and eventually ordained Abdel-Messih as Fr. Marcos Marcos, on August 9, 1964
As an aside, Fr. Makary would eventually be consecrated Bishop Samuel, responsible for nationwide Coptic social services. He was killed during the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981.
But Fr. Marcos became responsible for all of North America, and moved to Toronto in 1964, holding regular services also in Montreal and New York. His choice was not particularly strategic – the United States granted him a visitor’s visa, while Canada offered immigration.
Eventually churches would be established in New Jersey, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Boston in the United States, and Halifax, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Vancouver in Canada.
Fr. Marcos became known as ‘the flying priest’ for his extensive travels. The pattern continued until the arrival of Fr. Raphael Nakhla from Egypt in 1967, when they divided responsibilities into east and west.
The early Toronto liturgy, however, was held in a kindergarten at St. Mildred’s College, an Anglican school, serving 36 Coptic families. In 1965 the Anglican Holy Trinity Church offered their upstairs chapel to the Coptic community, and in 1968 the Anglicans gave full use of St. Matthias. In 1970 they moved again, leasing the United Church for $1 per year.
In 1977 this building was sold, and the church had to move again into a school auditorium. But that same year the church obtained an acre of land, in the neighborhood of Agincourt, Scarborough, Toronto, for $1.
The church specifically thanks Revs. Hunt, Chote, Fisk, Palmer, Roberts, and Lee for their kindness. Dr. McClure offered the lease; Mr. McClintoch sold the land.
Groundbreaking took place quickly, to coincide with the visit of Pope Shenouda to Toronto. And today, 19 years ago, Bishop Ruweis of the diocese of North America presided over the church consecration. Seventeen Coptic Orthodox priests from around the region helped officiate.
The church underwent expansion in 1992, and now includes a cultural center and Coptic museum.
Today St. Mark’s serves 500 families and 4000 parishioners. It is one of 37 Coptic Orthodox churches in Canada; the United States has over 200. The population estimate of the Coptic diaspora worldwide ranges from 1-2 million. Country estimates vary widely, from 100,000 to one million in the US, and up to 50,000 in Canada. The 2011 Canadian census listed their number at 16,000, which dramatically rose from 5,000 in the 1991 census.
I have not visited the church personally, though it would be nice to do so one day. I hope I will find continuing good relationships with the surrounding churches and community.
I would be surprised if it was not so.
Perhaps we can play soccer together.
The information above was collected from a pamphlet issued by St. Mark’s Church shortly before its 1978 consecration, a 2008 MA thesis of Rachel Loewen, for McMaster University, and the St. Mark’s church website. The photos are from the Away with Joanna blog.
UPDATE: Michael Akladios provides additional information and a different timeline in this Facebook comment.
He also writes: “Documentation for this history is available in the Toronto Anglican Diocesan Archive, the Toronto United Church Archive, and Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa; once again proving that Copts must find better means of preserving and maintaining their own history.”
I would trust his version above my own, but a thorough and more fitting article would do well to verify his and multiple sources.
This post is simply meant to make a digital record of an interesting pamphlet I stumbled upon in Cairo, for purpose similar to his: To promote a memory and further understanding.
Preserving history is much more difficult, and all are welcome to help iron it out here – and more importantly, in the archives he references.
The comment below, from Sylvia Marcos, daughter-in-law to the flying priest, is welcome reference for all who are interested.
Tawadros hailed the cooperation between Japan and Egypt, especially the new initiative to establish Japanese schools to better the education system. He praised the Japanese people for their renaissance following nuclear disaster, and their ongoing commitment to peace.
The church, he said, preaches love in every place. The church is a mother, who searches for her children wherever they are.
And the church does not stay still. As St. Mark traveled the ancient world to come to Egypt, so the church today comes to Japan.
The church was first built one year ago in Kyoto, on July 16. Around 100 people attended in the opening, including many nationalities of Eastern Orthodox rite. There are around 20 member families, though the church welcomes all and seeks to serve Japanese society. Language lessons in Arabic and Japanese are one expression of this desire.
The first mass, however, was held in 2004 by Bishop Daniel of the Sydney Diocese of Australia, to which the Japanese church belongs. St. Mary and St. Mark Church has also joined the Japanese Confederation of Christian Churches.
Nestorian Christianity was the first to reach Japan, perhaps as early as the 5th century. St. Francis Xavier is credited as the first modern missionary, in 1549. His efforts faced severe persecution, chronicled in the book Silence, by Shusaku Endo, and now made into a feature film starring Liam Neeson.
Protestants and Orthodox came in the 19th century. Interestingly, eight Japanese prime ministers have been Christians.
“God loves the world and everyone in it,” said Tawadros. “The church knows no geography.”
Perhaps the best evidence is the Japanese character of the church. In addition to a Japanese language mass, two of the three deacons consecrated by Pope Tawadros were Japanese.
Even so, they were identified by their Coptic/Christian names: Tawadros, Makarios, and Athanasius.
“We hope that God will bless them and they will become great servants of this church,” said Tawadros, interviewed in Japan by CTV.
“The church has a spiritual role to present salvation and encourage repentance, but it must also have a role in society according to the local needs,” he continued.
“This is the idea of St. Mark himself.”
Pope Tawadros was received in Japan by the Egyptian ambassador, toured the Tokyo Museum, and met the mayor of Tokyo.
His visit also attracted the attention of the Japanese media, with this clip presented by NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting organization.
The Coptic Media Center provided translation:
Title: People: Egyptian Christian Church- First visit to Japan for the Pope of the Coptic church
Picture: Pope Francis & H.H. Pope Tawadros II
Reporter: The person here standing next to Pope Francis is the Coptic Orthodox pope, His Holiness Pope Tawadros II. The first Coptic Orthodox church was established in Japan and H.H. came to Japan for the first time. Yesterday, he conducted a holy liturgy.
What kind of holy liturgy was it, I wonder?
Beyond the doors, you can hear a unique sound of prayers. Last year in October, a Coptic church was established in Japan. H.H. Pope Tawadros II conducted a holy liturgy there. At the holy liturgy, there were 100 church members gathered from around Japan.
Mr. Michel Youssef (church member): This is the first Coptic church in Japan and we are very happy that H.H. Pope Tawadros from Egypt had come today.
Reporter: The Coptic holy liturgy style had been continuing from ancient times. Icons of saints are on the wall and that had been brought from Egypt. The ladies cover their heads with scarves and (the Copts) respect and follow the traditions. But on the other hand, Japanese is used in the holy liturgy, and the clergy use PC tablets in their holy liturgy and it shows that they are keeping up with the modern technology.
The Coptic Orthodox church was founded around the 1st century, it is said that 10% of the Egyptian population are Coptic Christians. The Copts (Coptic community) have spread overseas to other countries such as Japan and Canada. One of the background reason for this is the presence of a group of Muslims (in Egypt) that considers Copts like enemies.
Rosemary: I think when they hear hate speeches like “kill people from other religions” that turns into persecution (against Copts).
Reporter: Continuously churches have been attacked because I.S. terrorists’ main aim is to attack churches. Regarding this issue, H.H. Pope Tawadros II commented on this:
H.H. Pope Tawadros II (Japanese subtitle): Terrorism divides the Egyptian people but Egypt is a strong country. (Addressing to Japanese people): let’s meet in Egypt.
Tomorrow night we will broadcast a Coptic studies researcher from Göttingen university (Mr. So Miyagawa) who will talk about how the Coptic clergy gives out information for Copts around the world. Please look forward to it tomorrow night.
I will update this post further if the follow-up video becomes available.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the Coptic Orthodox Church was in a state of deep vulnerability that tore at the very fabric of Coptic identity. In response, Girgis dedicated his life to advancing religious and theological education.
This book follows Girgis’ six-decade-long career as an educator, reformer, dean of a theological college, and pioneer of the Sunday School Movement in Egypt—including his publications and a cache of newly discovered texts from the Coptic Orthodox Archives in Cairo. It traces his agenda for educational reform in the Coptic Church from youth to old age, as well as his work among the villagers of Upper Egypt. It details his struggle to implement his vision of a Coptic identity forged through education, and in the face of a hostile milieu.
The pain and strength of Girgis are seen most clearly near the end of his career, when he said, “Despite efforts that sapped my health and crushed my strength, I did not surrender for one day to anyone who resisted or envied me…. Birds peck only at ripe fruits. I thank God Almighty that, through his grace, despair never penetrated my soul for even one day, but in fact I constantly smile at the resistances…. It is imperative that we do not fail in doing good, for we shall reap the harvest in due time, if we do not weary.”
Habib Girgis remains a pioneer of Coptic religious and theological education—a Copt whose vision and legacy continue to shape his community to this very day.
I must read the book to know the details and his particular impetus. But as I understand the greater trends, the American Presbyterian missionary efforts in Egypt put the Coptic Orthodox Church under great stress. The church, as mentioned in the excerpt, was vulnerable due to a state of internal decay as simony and Biblical illiteracy plagued the faithful. The church kept to its ancient rituals, but little more.
The Presbyterians, following a general failure to work successfully among the Muslims, began converting Copts to the evangelical faith and starting new churches.
Habib Girgis worked tirelessly to renew the Orthodox Church, as described above. His activity furthered the reforms began in the papacy of Cyril IV (1854-61), and continued with Pope Cyril V (1874-1927), the longest serving patriarch in Egypt’s history, who supported it.
The Sunday School Movement that was launched would eventually animate to-be Pope Shenouda III and other eventual bishops. The monastic heritage of the church found new life with an emphasis on education, and Bible reading was encouraged among the young, old, clergy, and laity.
Girgis was declared a saint by the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church in 2013.
Today the Presbyterian Church in Egypt is also thriving, but the Coptic Orthodox Church are the revived mother church respected by most. Habib Girgis is largely to thank, and now he can be.
Perhaps also Christians worldwide might realize – oh, Copts have Sunday School, too?
This past Palm Sunday two suicide bombers killed over 45 people at two churches in northern Egypt. One made his way all the way to the altar at St. George’s Cathedral in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, while the other was stopped at the gate outside St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, where he detonated his explosives. These attacks—along with the December 2016 bombing of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s Church at the cathedral compound in Cairo, the May massacre of 30 Copts in Minya, and ongoing violence in Arish and elsewhere—have raised questions about the Egyptian state’s ability to protect Christian citizens from the threat of terrorism. But amid the breakdowns, church leaders have developed routines and relationships with security authorities to provide a joint system of security.
On Easter Saturday evening, the chief Easter celebration in Egypt, I went to the midnight vigil at a Coptic Orthodox church in Cairo. The streets were cordoned off and a barrier channeled the throngs of worshippers through a tight security check. Police vans with heavily armed officers were everywhere. Yet as I approached behind several Egyptians getting their bags searched, a layman from the church caught my eye and motioned me forward. Nodding to the police, he allowed me to quickly pass through the metal detector and into the service.
One week later, it seemed Easter had been an aberration. The normal two to three policemen kept watch on the church from a distance. A couple church doormen glanced casually as I walked by them after passing through the metal detector. Yet in conversations with several church officials about internal security, they seemed satisfied that the apparently reduced police presence offered sufficient protection…
As word spread that 28 Coptic Christians were killed by terrorists, ambushed on their way to a church retreat in Upper Egypt, it was a little while before the realization hit: I was on a church retreat in the Delta.
Being in the opposite direction offered no sense of safety. Only one month earlier the Islamic State sent two suicide bombers to spoil Palm Sunday in churches in the Delta cities of Tanta and Alexandria. But this attack seemed different, another escalation. Coptic outings like the fated one to St. Samuel the Confessor Monastery near Minya in Upper Egypt represent one of the favorite activities of Orthodox Christians throughout Egypt, a mixture of spirituality and social fun. This killing could be a message for Christians to stay in their homes. Whether at worship or leisure, they are ISIS’ favorite target.
But the mentality is worse. Before the Palm Sunday bombings, the Islamic State drove Christians from their homes in northern Sinai, forcing them to take refuge in the Suez Canal cities or Cairo. There is an element—very small but determined and dangerous—that wants Egypt rid of Christianity.
It will be a very difficult task. The roots of the faith go back two thousand years. Copts claim first-century St. Mark the gospel writer as the founder of their church, and third-century St. Anthony the hermit as the founder of monasticism. Gruesome death is no stranger to the Coptic Orthodox Church; its liturgical calendar begins at the era of Diocletian, the Roman emperor who set thousands of martyrs to the sword. It is not likely the church is going anywhere.
But will they think twice before going again to a monastery? St. Samuel is off in the desert, an ancient expression of the Christian impulse to simplify and flee the allurement of the world. Copts in Upper Egypt go to the monastery 120 miles south of Cairo on the Western Desert road to seek the saint’s blessing, and perhaps the spiritual guidance of a monk. But with little else in the way of area entertainment, they also go for a picnic and to have a good time.
So also do they go to Anafora, a modern expression of the Christian impulse to simplify and uplift the marginalized of the world. This is where I was, 90 miles north of Cairo on the Alexandria Desert road, when I heard the news of the savage attack on the bus to St. Samuel. The rest of the day the atmosphere was sullen. Founded only two decades ago and not a monastery but a place of lay retreat and development, Anafora is usually vibrant and bustling with activity. But what joy can there be in the face of such evil?
Yet there must be. That evening the staff at Anafora quietly celebrated the birthday of one of their sisters. The founding bishop urges Copts to not give into fear, but to insist on both love and justice. Is this not the message of Christianity, to resurrect life after suffering death? The Coptic Orthodox Church has incarnated this model for two thousand years, will they not continue?
Friday begins the weekend in Egypt in accordance with the Muslim day of communal prayer. Most churches make this their primary worship service as well, and many Christians take advantage of the quiet roads and time off to commune with fellow believers in their monastery of preference. There are dozens scattered throughout the country, and surely next Friday they will be full again. Copts have not stopped going to church after the suicide bombings. I suspect they will not stop celebrating their heritage of monasticism and martyrdom either.
But the question of continuance must be asked. Since the Arab Spring, emigration has dramatically increased in anecdote, though official figures cannot be verified. And for decades within Egypt, economic realities even more than sectarian tension have driven internal migration from villages to cities. Are there enough of strong faith and eternal Christian values to stay and persevere? Or is it those of strong means and international Christian connections who leave, regardless of faith? In any case, the less-well-off are left behind.
But poor, rich, and in-between, the Copts of Egypt still number in the millions. Now by far the largest Christian community in the Middle East, they also claim a Biblical promise. “Blessed be Egypt, my people,” God says through the prophet Isaiah, and with Muslims the Copts see God’s hand of preservation upon the land of the Nile. But Isaiah also listed Assyria, modern-day Iraq now bereft of Christians, as God’s handiwork. With Israel named as God’s inheritance, is the best the Copts can hope for a tenuous middle ground?
There may not be much sympathetic American Christians can do to help, but do try to understand. And as you enjoy your church outing in the weeks to come this summer, do so with remembrance and prayer. Think too of the allurements of the world, the blessings of simplicity, and the necessary uplift of the marginalized. Think of St. Samuel, and of Anafora, and of an ancient bond of faith.
If from there you can only grow frustrated, remember the importance of love, justice, and joy. Trust God will work out his purposes and join him along the way, even as ambushes await.
I knew Hamilton existed, but very little beyond this. My editor’s linking to ‘unimaginable‘ may have helped the article go viral.
It was already a compelling story. Forgiveness offered by the widow of the Coptic doorman who save the lives of dozens, intervening against a suicide bomber.
It was a morbid type of fun to watch the article circulate online. I was very glad to tell the story. But so very sad there is a story to tell.
So it is a similar feeling being interviewed about it. Pilgrim Radio is a Christian network in the northwest United States, and they asked me to share with their listeners. If you like, here is the 27 minute program.
And here is the original article at Christianity Today, if you’d like to refresh your memory before listening.
I was interviewed by Pilgrim Radio once before, on the churches and Christians of the Arabian Peninsula.
Thanks for following along. Just remember to aim for more than appreciating the Coptic example. To the best of your ability, with God’s help, imitate. It can now be imagined.
A condensed version of this interview was first published at The Media Project on May 4, 2017.
Coptic Christians, the Middle East’s largest Christian community, account for roughly ten percent of Egypt’s population and have endured generations of exclusion and restrictions. Their struggles for equality have been aggravated by a series of gruesome and deadly attacks carried out by ISIS criminals. The latest act was a pair of bombings on Palm Sunday targeting packed churches in Alexandria and Tanta, which took the lives of 45 Christians and wounded more than 100 others, according to Human Rights Watch. ISIS previously targeted Copts in Cairo in a December, 2016, bombing that killed 30 and in a January, 2017, attack in the Sinai peninsula that killed eight. ISIS has stated its intention to extirpate Christianity from the Middle East.
TMP Egypt contributor Jayson Casper spoke to Bishop Thomas, head of the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Qusia and Meir, 170 miles south of Cairo, to find out how Copts are reacting to the latest attacks and what they expect for the future. Born in 1957, Thomas became a monk in 1985 and bishop in 1988. In 1999 he founded Anafora, a retreat center along the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, which became a community dedicated to ecumenical welcome and human development. Fluent in English alongside his native Arabic, he is a key source of insight on the situation of Christians in Egypt.
The Easter holiday is a joyous occasion but Egypt and her Christians are going through a difficult time after the Palm Sunday bombings. How are Copts doing these days?
There was a blend of grief, shock, anger, and question marks about what’s happening. People recall similar incidents from the past – the December bombing at St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Cairo, the 2010 Alexandria bombing, and further back in history. There has been a development in the attacks against Christians, and people are comparing it to what is happening in Syria and wondering if this will come to Egypt.
But the church holds to Christian principles, giving the people a Christian message. Love, and conquer evil through good. If we believe in the forgiveness Christ gave to us, we have to give it to others. Think positively, and do not be afraid. Don’t generalize but be fair. We cannot put the work of Islamic extremists on normal Muslims who haven’t done anything.
And normal people from the families of the victims have made statements that are very powerful. The widow of the doorman at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria said she forgives them. There is the question: How can Copts forgive like this? We are trying to nurture a holistic faith in society. Believing our life is not limited to this world makes it becomes stronger.
It will be good to come back to the teachings of the church, but first I want to ask about what is seen in the media. Coptic reactions are portrayed as fear, anger, and disillusionment. Things aren’t getting better and the government isn’t taking care of us. Is this an accurate picture? How strong and widespread are these feelings?
The Copts have a clearer understanding because we know the growth of Islamic fundamentalism has to be dealt with in a deeper way than just police or military forces. Security measures are only a part. The foundation is the ideology, needing the reformation of education. Copts are angrier at the education system than the security situation.
We look at things realistically, even though we were hoping for a calmer, more peaceful situation with the new government after the Muslim Brotherhood regime. We hoped it would be more active in reform. Some Copts are disappointed, but we are aware it is a long-term change, needing the support of the private sector, NGOs, and the religious sector. The curriculum of al-Azhar has to be looked at, in how they portray Christians, as does the public school curriculum.
We see also two kinds of media. One is trying to understand the situation and sympathize in the tragedy. The other is condemning Christians and encouraging more of the same. This must be dealt with firmly. If someone encourages attacks on others this is a crime against humanity, and it must be declared as such.
These things are being discussed among the youth and on the Coptic street. Even still, we are saying we love and we forgive—Jesus told us to love our enemies and do good to them—so his love encompasses the whole world and our fight is not against flesh and blood. It is against evil principles and thoughts; it is a struggle of ideology. Humanity must be linked with religion, and not to a particular religious group. As Christians we view everyone within the circle of God’s love, so we must love everyone, even those who persecute and attack us. We are against evil, but not against human beings. Instead we pity them.
There are some voices in Egypt who are promote this idea, but will it always be within the elite? It has to be implemented at the grassroots through the educational system.
You mentioned the importance of ideology. The president has spoken many times about the importance of reforming religious rhetoric, it seems he is aware of the comprehensive nature of this issue, beyond a military solution. But we see crimes against Copts go unpunished and a failure to pursue educational reform. Do the Copts still have optimism the government will move in this direction so that it will reach the grassroots, over time? Or is their frustration it is either only talk and politics, or that the state is unable to address ideological reform?
There is a group of people who hope it will change, who say we should encourage the process of reformation. There is another who says it will not happen, it is too long-term and the ideology is fixed among too many scholars. Personally, I think those who are disappointed are thinking about emigration, and I think another wave will come very soon, which is very bad. Christians have to stay in Egypt and be empowered here.
The process of reformation goes beyond just a president. He is trying to do his best but the society has many layers, and the undercurrent is stronger than what the official government says. What we need is to focus more on the undercurrent, which requires lots of work.
This gives Christians the responsibility to build up society. We have to be more active in peacemaking. This is an art that needs training, and helps build trust in the community. But we must also address the power balance, which aids the stability of society. Christians abroad and the international community can help Copts achieve this. We must work on projects and fill professions that the society needs.
In my area of Qusia we created a school that provides education in languages and an open, creative atmosphere, not dictation. Many Christians and Muslims started to come. It is run by the church, but society needs it, and it is unique in the area.
People meet and interact, but not in a religious framework. They come for the sake of their children, and discuss ethics and childrearing. We create many educational programs through this platform, and this gives us hope that these meeting points help give us status in society.
Similar things like hospitals and social events help society unite, and the church should take the lead. It presents us to society in a new way and counters disinformation against us.
But this problem is bigger than Egypt, and we have to look at it from a global perspective. Islamic fundamentalism and political Islam must be addressed. We have seen the results over several decades, in addition to the recent developments in Syria and Iraq and Lebanon and Palestine. The Middle East has been almost depopulated of its Christians, and in Egypt we are the largest community left. Will these conservative forces succeed in pushing our Christians to the West, or not?
Let’s return shortly to immigration, but first address some of the spiritual teachings you mentioned earlier. The wife of the doorman in Alexandria gave a phenomenal testimony of forgiveness, that came from her faith. But as we judge the Coptic mentality between anger and frustration and the church teachings to resist fear and hold on to joy, to what degree does the Christian message of hope truly permeate them as people?
One of the spontaneous reactions has been the full attendance of Sunday evening prayers, right after the Palm Sunday morning bombings. All during Holy Week our churches have been packed. People are praying with enthusiasm and demonstrating persistence that we are here, we’re staying here, and this is our faith. Through their actions they are demonstrating their hope.
No doubt there have been tears, but still they come. There is sadness in their hearts, but they still hold to the responsibility that God has given: We are not afraid, we love, and we ask for justice. These are the three folds the church has been teaching, and the people’s reaction has been a beautiful portrayal.
Many people see only the church teaching suffering and martyrdom, but within this there is justice, a very important aspect that balances with love. Love and forgiveness create peace and positive attitudes, but at the same time love is not weak, it is strong, that is why there is no fear. Love and justice must be intertwined. I love, but I ask for my rights. I’m a human being, and I must be dealt with in my home country like a citizen, with security and equal rights.
The heritage of martyrdom in the Coptic Church promotes acceptance and forgiveness. But what is its connection with justice?
There have been many saints who were martyred because they asked for their rights. St. George, St. Mina, St. Mercorious – they stood up for their faith, defending other people. This is why it was their fate to become martyrs. Martyrdom is not just someone putting a bomb in a church. It is mainly people declaring their faith, hold to their rights, asking for justice, but ending in death.
So I don’t see a contraction, and many in the Coptic community are asking what we must do to achieve justice. I don’t know how it will be implemented. Communication with scholars, writers, and journalists from the Muslim side, to empower the cause?
If I take an American example, in achieving justice for the black community there were three main aspects. The first is Rosa Parks, and how she was made able to ask for her rights. Our teachings can help prepare the individual and create many more.
The second is Martin Luther King, who was a man of faith, but also of truth. He was able to communicate love and Christian principles in a context of injustice. The church has to give the message.
The third, which is very much needed, is Elanor Roosevelt. She represents the political arena and media, which were not of the black community. If the Christians in Egypt make a better effort to reach out to the Muslim community, its intellectuals and scholars, and discuss with them in more openness to empower them to join in the faithful fight for justice, it will be a great help.
But it is also needs an international effort, for the ideology is global. If conservatism is strong in the world there must be collaboration in the reformation of thought and the interpretation of texts in light of citizenship and humanity. There is much work ahead of us, and if it is not undertaken we may end up in a worse situation.
Is there something that makes the Copts of Egypt different from the Christians of the rest of the region, something that has enabled them to survive and resist the temptation to violence?
We don’t want to blame the victims, which is important to state clearly. We stand in sympathy and solidarity with the people of Syria, Iraq, and the region. We have seen what happened in Sinai, when the Christians evacuated from the area. We don’t know if this will continue.
A faithful attitude of ‘love your enemies’ and forgiveness gives a positive message to the other side, but we don’t know what will happen. It is a big question mark. Allow me to be spiritual and say it is the hand of God that is protecting this people here for a reason. I don’t know why, but keeping the Christian community in stability in Egypt may give a message of stability to the whole Middle East.
Yet over the past few decades, as you mentioned, Coptic immigration to the West has increased dramatically.
And it will continue to increase, no one can say it will stop. This makes us weaker, because who emigrates? Those who are able – the rich, the educated, those able to make a living outside. But they leave behind the weaker ones. If someone wants to care for their family we cannot tell them stop, to stay. We can encourage them it will get better, but if they have decided to go, they will.
But we recognize the negative impact. Still, Copts in the diaspora help with financial support, educational programs, and are a voice in the international community. This is very much appreciated. The presence of Christians in the Middle East remains a big question mark these days. If things continue, I don’t know how long we can last.
Yet in Egypt we have a very strong belief in the promise found in Isaiah 19, that there will be an altar in the land of Egypt. This gives the Christians a very strong hope that we will always be here and nothing can break us. This belief gives us power and helps explain why the church is flourishing despite difficulties, attacks, and persecutions. The church is strong, and people are determined to stay and stand firm in their faith.
Twelve seconds of silence is an awkward eternity on television. Amr Adeeb, perhaps the most prominent talk show host in Egypt, leaned forward as he searched for a response.
“The Copts of Egypt … are made of … steel!” he finally uttered.
Moments earlier, Adeeb was watching a colleague in a simple home in Alexandria speak with the widow of Naseem Faheem, the guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the seaside Mediterranean city.
On Palm Sunday, the guard had redirected a suicide bomber through the perimeter metal detector, where the terrorist detonated. Likely the first to die in the blast, Faheem saved the lives of dozens inside the church.
“I’m not angry at the one who did this,” said his wife, children by her side. “I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’
“‘You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.’”
Stunned, Adeeb stammered about Copts bearing atrocities over hundreds of years, but couldn’t escape the central scandal.
“How great is this forgiveness you have!” his voice cracked. “If it were my father, I could never say this. But this is their faith and religious conviction.”
Millions marveled with him across the airwaves of Egypt.
So also did millions of Copts, recently rediscovering their ancient heritage, according to Ramez Atallah, president of the Bible Society of Egypt which subtitled and recirculated the satellite TV clip.
“In the history and culture of the Copts, there is much taught about martyrdom,” he told CT. “But until Libya, it was only in the textbooks—though deeply ingrained.”
The Islamic State in Libya kidnapped and beheaded 21 mostly Coptic Christians in February 2015. CT previouslyreported the message of forgiveness issued by their families and the witness it provided.
“Since then, there has been a paradigm shift,” said Atallah. “Our ancestors lived and believed this message, but we never had to.”
Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.
Episode one. “They are just following the teachings of their book, and the example of their prophet,” said a Coptic friend following the twin church bombings in Tanta and Alexandria on Palm Sunday, killing dozens. I refrained from rolling my eyes, as this was a moment for comfort amid tragedy. Such a refrain is not uncommon among some Egyptian Christians, that while not all Muslims are terrorists, Muslims who follow their religion tend in that direction.
But then he continued. “Just a little while ago my friend told me that those men are now in heaven, because they killed non-Muslims.”
If my eyes weren’t rolling, they were now bulging from their sockets, aghast. Your friend? He would say such a thing to you, to your face?
Episode two. “I am praying for the Copts,” said another Egyptian Christian friend. “When you know your enemy you can retaliate. But who are these terrorists? If the Copts explode we could become like Lebanon, and no one wants that.”
My eyes have never had so much activity, astounded again. Lebanon? Is that in play? I can’t recall ever hearing such sentiment from a Copt. Over the past several years, the polarized Egyptian narrative has warned of civil war, of forces internal and external wishing to divide the nation. But it always seemed exaggerated, and never sectarian. Islamist and non-Islamist forces might collide, but Egypt has no Christian pockets of population that might form a regional militia. The country is integrated and homogenous, Muslim and Christian living side-by-side.
Taken together these episodes illustrate a worrisome development within a longstanding reality. Muslims and Christians tend to be friends, neighbors, and quite similar in common culture. At the same time, there is a latent but tangible reservoir of mistrust. It activates occasionally, especially when community issues turn into matters of honor over houses of worship, land, or women. But for the most part among a 90 million plus population, religious distinction is managed relatively well.
Therefore, the most disturbing aspect of the bombings is that it has now happened twice. Last December the Islamic State ran a suicide bomber into a chapel adjacent the papal cathedral, killing 29 mostly women and children. They vowed it was just the beginning.
But to say “twice” is misleading. Palm Sunday was the second of two major bombings targeting Christian civilians, amid scores of previous attacks against security personnel. But other smaller acts less well reported have left the sadly repetitive “community” pattern and veered into clearly sectarian motivation.
Last February hundreds of Copts fled their homes in northern Sinai as the Islamic State went on a killing spree. But prior to this in various locations across Egypt, there were several unexplained murders of Coptic citizens. And in Alexandria a Coptic merchant had his throat slit on a crowded public street, by a Muslim offended at his sale of alcohol.
No evidence has yet emerged that the individual incidents were explicitly planned by the Islamic State. But research by Mokhtar Awad and others have revealed an emerging strategy within the group to spark an Iraq-style sectarian war in Egypt. As their project wanes in the self-proclaimed caliphate, the land of the Nile becomes a new field to mine.
Will it work? It is a more different bet than before, when the sectarian divide was between Shia and Sunni, who also inhabited distinctive majority areas. But Awad notes that a sectarian mentality has long been cultivated in Egypt by Islamists and overlooked if not abetted by the state. Copts have responded and nurtured religious distinction as well, though within their traditional Christian ethos of monasticism, martyrdom, and loving your enemy.
Perhaps the Islamic State is betting their resilience cannot hold out forever, that an explosion against somebody is coming. Perhaps they hope the Muslim keenness on national unity will erode over time, should Copts—even a Copt—lash out in retaliation or appear too “uppity” in the demand they be treated as equal citizens.
So far it is a bad bet. The church counsels patience and the eternal crown of glory. Each attack against Copts has prompted a firm re-insistence of togetherness from state and society. Similar militant attacks in the 1990s turned the Muslim street decidedly against the jihadis.
But the world now is a different place, and the tactics exceed anything witnessed previously in Egypt. A second incident suggests there will be a third, and fourth, and so on. Even if Egypt is unlikely to become Syria, Palm Sunday suggests more bloodshed is coming.
Any American policy response will be fraught with difficulty, mixed up in the morass of Middle Eastern politics. Support too closely and risk accusation of backing repressive governments. Step away and risk accusation of empowering illiberal Islamists. Either one will beg claims of interference and violation of sovereignty. God bless the diplomats who must navigate carefully.
But in lieu of policy, the eyes can be put to better use than described above. One, dart vigilantly. Scan surroundings, beware of trouble, and look for solutions. Two, tear liberally. Tragedy demands we weep with those who weep, in sympathy and solidarity.
Otherwise, amid ongoing violence they may glaze over. Otherwise, amid religious distinctiveness they may grow jaundiced. Jesus demanded that our eye be “single”, lest the whole body be full of darkness.
It may be an apt metaphor for Egypt, a nation with many troubles and contradictions. The Islamic State is trying to exploit them. Be keen not to fuel the polarization, for the eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good.
Attacks at two Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt’s Nile Delta killed more than 40 people and injured more than 100 others during Palm Sunday services—including the one where Pope Tawadros II was worshiping.
ISIS claimed responsibility. In February, the Egypt chapter of the Islamist extremists had released a threatening video calling Coptic Christians “our priority and our preferred prey.” Soon after, about 100 Christian families fled their homes in the Sinai Peninsula amid a string of murders.
Reuters reports more details on the bombing in Tanta at Mar Girgis (St. George) Church, which killed at least 27 and injured more than 70. CNN reports more details on the Alexandria bombing at St. Mark’s Cathedral, which killed at least 16 and injured more than 40. [Before ending its live updates, state media outlet Ahram Online put the final toll from Egypt’s health ministry at 29 dead in Tanta and 18 dead in Alexandria.]
Nader Wanis, director of the Arkan Cultural Center in Alexandria, was worshiping at the Anglican Pro-Cathedral only two streets from St. Mark’s when the bomb went off. “It was only a few minutes before serving communion and it shook our whole church,” he told CT. “We were scared, but insisted to continue.”
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Forty days later, the pain of terrorism in Egypt resonates as far as New Jersey.
On December 11, 2016 the Coptic community of Egypt was shaken by a suicide bomber, killing 28 worshippers in the St. Peter and St. Paul Church adjacent the Coptic Cathedral.
“Deliverance from our enemies comes only from God,” said Archbishop Karas, patriarchal exarch for North America in the Coptic Orthodox Church.
“But this is not new, martyrdom is part of living our lives in Christ.”
Archbishop Karas was one of many religious and political dignitaries present during a commemoration service at the St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Holmdel, NJ. Copts sometimes jest that their diaspora in New Jersey is the ‘Shubra’ of the United States, referring to the mixed but heavily populated Coptic neighborhood in Cairo.
Approximately 1000 visitors gathered on January 13 to honor the martyrs who lost their lives, fitting with the traditional Egyptian custom of mourning the deceased on the fortieth day after their passing.
This corresponds to January 20, but host Fr. Michael Sorial explained the service was moved forward to avoid scheduling on the presidential inauguration.
Fr. Sorial offered thanks to Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for his response to the tragedy. Immediately he promised to restore the Cairo church to its original condition in time for Coptic Christmas on January 7, and honored the victims with a state funeral.
The work completed, Sisi visited Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II for Christmas mass in the Coptic Cathedral for the third year running. He is the first Egyptian president ever to do so.
Fr. Sorial also hosted a number of New Jersey political figures, among them longtime friend of the Coptic community Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
“We look up to God, for only faith can truly comfort us at a time like this,” said Menendez. “And in each other we find the strength to move forward.
“As long as I have a vote and a voice in the US Senate, I will be a bold advocate for tolerance and acceptance, for freedom of religion, peace, and security – both here at home and around the world.”
Menendez was joined by fellow senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who offered his condolences in a recorded video.
“I am grateful the Coptic community lives those values of joy, of peace, of mercy, of compassion,” said Booker. “You evidence the values that are needed now more than ever to combat that kind of violence.”
Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ-4) dispatched an official letter.
“My prayer is that following this darkness and evil, the light of the Christian community in Egypt will burn brighter than ever before,” he wrote.
“I commit to you to work toward a more secure future for Christians in Egypt and in the region.”
Also joining the commemoration was Ambassador Ahmed Farouk of the Egyptian General Consulate in New York.
“In Egypt, that fact is that we are all Copts—whether we are Muslims or Christians,” said Farouk. “The 28 martyrs are in a better place than all of us, for sure.
“The only big loser is terrorism, and it will keep losing as long as we stand united.”
In his keynote address, Archbishop Karas reminded the audience that these martyrs cannot be remembered without also remembering other Christian and non-Christian victims of terrorism around the world.
But he impressed upon those in attendance that such witness is not only for those who are killed. It is meant also for the living.
“For most of us, martyrdom means we die to ourselves, and give our lives completely to God,” he said. “We honor Jesus Christ and the sacrifice of the 28 martyrs by taking up our cross, to follow our Lord.”
For complete video of the memorial service, please click here or watch below.
Today marks a strange day. Just one week ago, a suicide bomber killed over 25 people, mostly women and children, as they worshipped in church here in Cairo. And one week from today, people all around the world will celebrate the joyous birth of a Savior during Western Christmas. On one end of the bookend is a most tragic event; on the other, a most joyful one. And yet for both events, that is only part of the story.
The bombing last week hit close to home. Although we are not from the Orthodox tradition of faith, we have worshiped at the local Coptic Orthodox church since we arrived in Cairo seven years ago. We are familiar with the layout of the sanctuary, including the segregation of men and women. The right side of the pews, facing the altar, is for the women and consequently most of the children. The men sit on the left side of the church. In our church there can be some mixing toward the back, and that is often where our family sits. But for the suicide bomber, whether this was his target or just the nearest group he could reach, his bomb exploded in the women’s section.
Mothers and daughters lost their lives. Sisters, friends, aunts, and grandmothers. Mothers lost daughters and daughters lost mothers. In at least one family, both the mother and daughter died, and another daughter was injured. In another family, two sisters died, just graduated from school. As I looked at the pictures of some of the victims, I couldn’t help thinking about the Sunday school teachers with my kids every week. Young, vibrant, with their whole lives ahead of them.
One report mentioned the timing of the explosion. During mass there is always a “giving of the peace.” This has been a favorite time for our children as they slide their hands between the hands of other congregants, their siblings, and us, and then kiss their own fingertips, while saying “peace of the Messiah.” This was the time, purposefully for not, that the suicide bomber entered the church. Instead of peace, how tragic this man would give only violence.
Yet the Coptic Orthodox Church, thought mourning, still rejoices. It is a church built on a history of pain, persecution, and suffering. Children hear the stories of martyrs from centuries past and marvel at their strong faith and unwavering resolve to follow Jesus despite the threat of death. Adults aspire to stand firm in the face of fear. One friend told us he wished he was counted worthy to be there and die. We are glad he wasn’t one of 25-plus now added to the church roster.
Such hope can sound trite. A band-aid for the pain or an elixir to numb feelings after tragedy. But it is not. Mothers are grieving. Fathers are burying their children. Children try to understand where their mom has gone. All of the pain is real and felt. Yet they have a deeper faith that can help support those who are mourning.
Though the Coptic Orthodox calendar has Christmas on January 7, most of the world will celebrate just one week from today. There is so much joy and happiness that surrounds this event. For me it means baking, spending time with my family, fellowshipping with friends, making Christmas ornaments, and attending special church services. And of course, we know the Christmas story where angels appeared to shepherds and announced the good news with great joy! Amazing things happened more than 2000 years ago.
But tragic things happened too. As I reflected this week on the bombing—with Christmas so near—I thought of the mothers in Bethlehem who lost their sons. As Herod’s jealousy grew over the rumors of a new king, he ordered his soldiers to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years and younger. Can you imagine? Murdered as they slept in their beds. Seized while nursing. Moments earlier they were crawling down the corridor or toddling toward their moms. What pain, what tragedy.
Christmas is a joyous celebration because it signals the birth of the Prince of Peace who will—one day—bring peace to this world. But this year not all are festive with blinking lights and wrapping paper. Besides the families of the Egyptian martyrs, some are dealing with debt, divorce, death, and disease. The world is dealing with refugees, war, terrorism, and racism. Not exactly the happiest Christmas message.
How do we, how do I, handle all the tragedy in the world and still somehow celebrate the birth of my Savior? This reflection is how I will start; I will remember the bigger picture. Some are suffering; some are rejoicing. I will pray for both. I will help others. I will be kind. I will teach my children what I must continually learn: To not just focus on my own joy this Christmas, but to look outward and consider others.
We are mothers and daughters, mothers and sons. Let us pray for peace on earth and goodwill toward men.
Egypt’s Coptic Christians are in a state of mourning after a suicide bomber killed at least 25 people at a Cairo church on Sunday.
“Egypt always tends to rally around Christians at moments like this,” said Jayson Casper, CT’s Middle East correspondent. “But over time, [ISIS is] trying to hammer and hammer and hammer the Christians in Egypt and put so much pressure on the internal government that it itself may collapse.”
But even when suffering does come, the Coptic Church “is equipped to deal with it,” said Casper.
“They can say, ‘This has always happened to us in our history. It is how God has treated us and he perseveres with us through it.’”
While the attack was the worst to target Copts since the 2011 New Year’s bombing of a church in Alexandria that killed 23 people, the population has been the victim of sectarian violence for years. In 2015, ISIS, who also claimed responsibility for the latest attack, beheaded 21 Coptic Christians in Libya.
Casper joined assistant editor Morgan Lee and editor-in-chief Mark Galli this week to discuss the fascinating and important history of Coptic Christians, how the Egyptian church relates to a changing government, and why this most recent attack is unique.
Please click here to listen to the podcast at Christianity Today (38 minutes).