“There has been a bombing at the cathedral,” said the pastor at the local Methodist church in a lower-class area of downtown Cairo. “Several are dead, and we pray for our nation.”
It took me a moment to comprehend, but the gravity of his words indicated more than a simple illustration. I opened my cell phone to check the news and saw the bold headline: 25 dead and 49 injured in an attack on the Coptic Orthodox cathedral. The spiritual center of Egyptian Christianity had been mercilessly violated.
Only a few minutes earlier, the sermon considered John the Baptist and how his life of faithfulness ended with his head on a platter. Here again now was another modern Egyptian example of martyrdom, one more in a long line since the similar bombing of a church in Alexandria six years earlier. Several women sobbed quietly, as the men sat in stunned silence.
But a little later as they exited the service, the collective sense felt more like resignation. The men exchanged pleasantries and went home; the women lingered a little longer in conversation. What was unthinkable at the start of the Arab Spring had become unsurprising. In Alexandria 23 Copts died when a car bomb went off outside the church, but that attack, at least, soon gave way to the hope of a new revolution. The cathedral atrocity gives no inspiration, as Egypt remains muddled in a regional fog of war and terrorism.
In-between the two bombings were the 2013 revenge attacks on dozens of churches throughout the nation, as frustrated Islamists blamed Christians for the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi. And the usual stream of sectarian incidents continued apace, as the state failed to hold accountable the mob violence of Muslims objecting to a church in their village, or an interfaith love affair, or any other typical but ill-justified collective form of Coptic punishment. It has been a rough stretch for Egypt’s Christians.
But not nearly as rough as the Christians of Iraq and Syria, or the Muslims of Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere have endured—and the Copts know this. They stand behind their Muslim Brotherhood-vanquishing president, and give much slack to a government they know is under tremendous pressure. Everywhere they turn it seems some new conspiracy is bent on dragging Egypt into the Middle East morass. The economy is in shambles, tourism is nonexistent, and save for the mandatory utterances of support following terrorism, they feel the international community never speaks except in censure. For this reason many have expressed favor at the election of Donald Trump. He likes our president, they say, and at least he’ll leave us alone.
For Copts are tired of being treated as pawns. A few days before the bombing, Foreign Policy ran a story entitled, “How Egypt’s Copts Fell Out of Love with President Sisi.” Even Chuck Colson’s Breakpoint piled on, ostensibly seeking to help by demanding the US president support Egypt’s Christians. “Meet the new persecutor,” said the article subtitle, “same as the old one.” Some on the left seem intent on buttressing the narrative of Copts in the way of a deserved Islamist democratic future. Some on the right seem intent on painting Muslims as sharia-inspired agents of Christian antipathy.
Both articles do well to draw on actual Coptic voices, and important ones. The news they convey is vital to learn in a world where, unless made a pawn, the Copt is often ignored. But they miss the nuance of the Coptic reality. Perhaps they can be forgiven for not knowing enough; perhaps they are guilty of pushing an agenda.
Back in Egypt, the Copts are well aware of incumbent discrimination and state weakness. But they cheer on a president who attends Christmas mass with the pope, and a military that rebuilds the churches Islamists destroyed. A new law for church building may or may not fully address the issues surrounding freedom of worship, but at least this regime—the first in 160 years—issued a law at all.
And following every tragedy, the common Muslim tends to open his or her bosom. Private taxi services Uber and Careem offered free rides to the hospital for blood donations. Many have missed the fact this bombing took place on the birthday of Islam’s prophet, a traditional day of merriment. The attack was therefore an assault on Muslims as well, Christians note. A popular cartoon draws the traditional holiday doll in the black clothes of mourning, as behind her stands a somber crucifix.
Thus between the kindness of the Egyptian soul and the sectarianism latent in an identity-driven society, the Copt is left waiting for national transformation. The rhetoric of the current regime seeks to revive a spirit of Egyptian nationalism, if only it can sludge through current challenges to reach a modicum of stability. Every maltreated Copt who fails to obtain justice is another reminder of how far the country has to go. And the cathedral bombing is another example of the powerful forces that stand against an idealized future.
But from the demonized past and lingering present, the Muslim Brotherhood condemns the bombing in one breath and blames it on regime-church collaboration in another. As long as this is the alternative, Copts find their best option in the preservation of a strong-handed government and a nominally secular society. Some in their community continue faithfully to agitate for human rights and a less political role for the church. Many agree but feel security and economy must be prioritized. Most hope for an open society of enlightened Egyptians, if only a generation away.
The Methodist church sermon that ended with John’s head on a platter began with the miracle that led to his birth. Elderly Zachariah and sterile Elizabeth likely long gave up hope of a child, the pastor surmised. Even so, “Your prayer has been heard,” said the angel. God is faithful, even when his people falter. John, the pastor noted, also doubted the one he baptized.
Where in this parable are Egypt’s Copts? Soon to be beheaded, or of pious prayers fulfilled? Likely somewhere in between, still inclined to pray for their nation.