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…
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.
From April 25-28 I traveled with Arab West Report through a few Upper Egyptian Holy Family sites, places Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are recorded to have stayed according to Coptic tradition. This travelogue will share some of the insights and anecdotes learned along the way, by means of pictures taken at each location.
Please click here for the full commentary at Arab West Report. This posting represents the third of the articles I was able to write following the trip; I will only post the photos not used in writing about a cancelled Palm Sunday march through streets of a mostly Christian village, or about local perspectives of Copts toward the elephant in the room – emigration.
But the Arab West Report article is a good nine pages long featuring 35 photos. Most only have a paragraph or two of reflection, so it is easy reading. Here it will easier – pictures with a sentence or two. Please enjoy both here and there.
The trip took in far too much in far too little time to really feel like I learned about these sites and the reality of Christian life in Upper Egypt. But I am very thankful for this first opportunity, hopeful for far better understanding in the future. Please click here for a few more photos and fuller commentary.
Joyous Copts raised palm leaves and shouts of welcome as Bishop Thomas, dressed in his regal red clerical robe, entered the Church of the Virgin Mary in Saragna, 325 kilometers south of Cairo.
But departing from tradition he arrived by car for the first time this year. For years local Copts would first parade him through the streets of the 90 percent Christian village.
For the first time in this Upper Egyptian diocese, the ancient parade on 28 April remained within church grounds to control the behavior of Christian youth.
‘It used to be that all churches would parade in the streets, but because of the pressures of the last few decades in most places it has stopped,’ explains Thomas.
Saragna was the last village of his diocese to maintain the parade. ‘We are mostly Christians here, so all is well,’ says Ramiz Ikram, the fourth generation Coptic mayor.
‘Some Muslims complain due to their fanaticism, but we don’t march in their areas so as not to make problems.’
But according to Fr Kyrillos Girgis, a Cairo-trained medical doctor who has served as priest in the village for 23 years, local youth recently began shouting offensive anti-Muslim chants.
He threatened to bar them from communion for a year, but eventually had to stop the procession entirely.
This past Sunday, as everywhere else in Egypt according to the Eastern religious calendar, palms were raised within church grounds instead of in the streets as of old. (Please click here for video.)
Bishop Thomas remains positive however. ‘The challenging religious situation in Egypt reinforces our religious identity,’ he says ‘and today we enjoy being in the kingdom of God.’
Fr Kyrillos can also see the silver lining in the dark clouds gathering over this country. He is leading a vast expansion of the Church of the Virgin Mary, tripling its size and adding a second sanctuary.
Local authorities licensed the expansion before the revolution, along with construction of new churches in the roughly 50 percent Christian villages of Titaliya and Manshia.
‘We have good relations with security and with local people,’ said Thomas, ‘We prefer to obtain proper permissions because we do not want to take any risks.’
Outside of his diocese, however, other bishops are less risk averse. The 22,000-strong village of Bayadia which is more than 90 percent Christian, had a single church for six different denominations, despite many applications for building permission.
‘We felt great injustice under Mubarak,’ said Orthodox priest Fr Girgis, ‘because we had only one church despite being the great majority of Christians.’
His solution was illegal construction of four more churches. Other denominations followed suit, and Bayadia now has fourteen churches. In the nearby village of Dair Abu Hinnis which is 100 percent Christian, Fr Bemwa boasts of an increase of from five to ten churches since the revolution.
Bishop Thomas explains it can take up to fifteen years to gain a church building permit, whether from bureaucracy or discrimination.
Many priests take matters into their own hands.
With the collapse of government, this is increasingly the norm in Egypt. The Ministry of Housing and Local Development announced recently the existence of more than five million unlicensed buildings. A BBC report earlier this year documented the post-revolutionary surge in building, including many that have already collapsed.
But when Christians attempt such illegal church construction in Muslim majority villages, there is often resistance. Sometimes this is the case even when permits exist.
‘As long as it is a primarily Christian area there is no problem to build,’ said Cornelis Hulsman, editor-in-chief of Arab West Report (AWR). ‘But when it is in a mostly Muslim area it can cause clashes if neighbours are opposed.’
AWR investigated an attack on a church in Aswan in October 2011, and a February 2013 attack in Fayyoum. In both cases Muslims had been offended when local houses used for worship were expanded or renovated.
But on Palm Sunday, Egyptian Copts celebrate the success of a community which has maintained Christian roots since the visit of the Holy Family fleeing from Palestine.
The faithful flock to pilgrimage sites, such as the rural Serabamoun Monastery, believed by local Christians to house a tree which provided shade to Jesus and Mary.
Fr Seraphim, Coptic priest in the nearby city of Daryut, said, ‘Christians in Egypt have seen more persecution in the past than we see now.
‘And of course you have to make use of the opportunity: there is no government.’