AFTER CHRISTMAS: EGYPTIANS BETWEEN A ROCK AND HARD PLACE

by Nelly van Doorn-Harder
(Featured Image by Coptic Orthodox Bishop Suriel of Melbourne)

The end of 2016 was a tense time for the Coptic Christians of Egypt. On December 11, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo during a celebration of mass, and many Coptic Christians expected more attacks to come. So there was a strange sense of relief when January 6, 2017, halfway through the celebration of the Christmas Eve mass, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi stopped by the Coptic cathedral to deliver a message to his Christian subjects. Since coming to power in June 2014, he had been the first Egyptian President who took the time to visit the Christmas mass.

Addressing a crowd of enthusiastic believers, some of them waving small Egyptian flags, he said “we are all one.” He also reminded the Copts that in 2018, they would be celebrating the cathedral’s fiftieth anniversary. A sign of prestige for Egypt, it had opened on June 25, 1968 with national and international dignitaries attending. President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-1970) had been very keen on this prestigious project and had contributed half a million pounds in government funds to build it.

Perhaps this gesture of generosity was in the back of Al-Sisi’s mind when he promised that by 2018 the largest church and mosque in all of Egypt would be built in the new, still to be constructed capital. The President also mentioned the ongoing project to restore all the churches that had been damaged in attacks by radical Muslims. Before leaving he conveyed good wishes for the New Year, stressing that Egyptians should stand together and treat each other with respect.[1]

The Coptic Cathedral in Cairo is considered a sacred place, not just by Christians but by Muslims as well. Shockwaves went through the nation on Sunday, December 11, 2016, when the suicide bomber marched into the church adjacent to the cathedral, killing twenty-seven, mostly women, and wounding dozens. The Church of St. Paul and St. Peter, called the Boutrossiya by Egyptians, is often used for smaller gatherings instead of the cathedral and considered to be part of it.

The bomber had entered the church mid-service and marched towards the altar where the priest and deacons had just finished blessing the bread and wine for Holy Communion. The priest seemed to have been his target but the bomb went off earlier than planned as the bomber passed the women’s section.

I happened to be in the south of Egypt at the time of the attack. I had joined an Egyptian group visiting Assiyut, where we saw ancient monasteries and pharaonic graves. Around 10 am, while we were admiring wall painting inside a grave, the news of the bombing started to appear on cell phones. Muslims as well as Christians in our group fell silent as the news sunk in. Tweets expressing horror, disbelief, and deep sadness flew around the nation; with every tweet the number of casualties increased. According to next day’s news, the suicide bomber had been carrying twelve kilograms of TNT.

That Sunday, Pope Tawadros was visiting Athens where the President phoned him immediately following the attack, announcing that there would be three days of mourning and an official state funeral for the victims. Government officials paid a visit to the wounded in the hospital and called upon the nation to join hands in fighting terrorists. And the government promised to restore the church before the Coptic Christmas on January sixth.

To the great chagrin of some radical-minded Muslim members of Parliament, the dead were declared martyrs; not just Coptic but national martyrs since “their sacrifice had been for the country.” According to the Coptic newspaper Watani, “Egypt’s heart was bleeding.”[2] After the bombing, Copts did not know whether to be angry (Was the security failure the fault of the government or the Church?) or just call for mercy. Thousands of Copts started to gather in front of the cathedral chanting battles cries such as “Kyrie Eleison,” Lord, have Mercy, and “We will go on praying no matter what.”

Monday, I watched the funeral on TV together with my host and several guests. First the church service with the coffins lined up before the altar. White banners with the names of the victims lined the walls. A woman who lost both of her daughters was kneeling in between their coffins, holding on to both. She had to be carried away to make way for the Pope. As he leaned in distress facing the coffins, everybody around me started to cry. A Muslim friend posted on Facebook: “My heart is bursting. Yes, I am referring to yesterday’s events and the ugly truth of religious falsehoods {by extremist-minded Muslim leaders] we have to endure every day.” In his sermon, Tawadros stressed that it was not just the Copts who felt pain and loss, but all of Egypt.

Later that day, during the official state funeral, the President announced that the suicide bomber had been twenty-two-year-old Mahmoud Shafiq Mohammed Moustafa, and stated that “this blow caused us a lot of pain but it will never break us.” Everybody feared what extremists, especially those connected to the Islamic State or Daesh would come up with next. Knowing that Daesh-connected terrorists like to attack when people are celebrating, many feared more incidents during the New Year’s or Christmas services. The fear was palpable in the days after the bombing. But no new attacks happened. Army engineers restored the Boutrossiya, and the Pope decided to use it for the New Year’s mass. After the service, he started the New Year by having breakfast with the families of the victims.

When the Boutrossiya was repaired, the wall and the columns remained untouched to show the marks of fire and bullets from the suicide belt. They remind Egyptians of their country’s precarious existence and vulnerability. January 9, 2017, extremists attacked a checkpoint in North Sinai, killing 10 policemen and wounding more than twenty. Many see such assaults as the result of Al-Sisi’s repressive politics.

The Boutrossiya bomber had spent a year in jail without being officially charged. He had been tortured for being near, not in, an anti-government demonstration. According to political analysts, locking up young people with impunity gives birth to scores of angry radicalized young men since the prisons are fertile ground for Islamist recruiters. While churches and Coptic property used to be the targets of choice, nowadays terrorists are diversifying their targets. For example they blow up planes – October 2015, a Russian plane was shot down in Sinai killing 224, May 2016, Egypt Air flight 804 from Paris to Cairo broke up midway. According to the Global Terrorism Index, the number of incidents and casualties is rising steadily; 2015 there were nearly 500.

All of Egypt is under threat. So far the government’s attempts to maintain calm and security by using brutal and dubious methods have not worked. There is little the Copts can do but rely on their faith, their dedication to Egypt, and the President’s efforts to include them in the nation. In his Christmas message, Pope Tawadros repeated the same advice he had given during the funeral service: look up to the heavens from where come light and peace and you can become peacemakers. Only looking to earth makes people pursue violence, war, conflicts, and terror.[3]

Please read/watch: 

Notes:
[1] See the article on Egyptian Streets that also has a clip of the speech: President Sisi Vows to Build Egypt’s Largest Church, Mosque During Christmas Mass: http://egyptianstreets.com/2017/01/07/president-sisi-vows-to-build egypts-largest-church-mosque-during-christmas-mass/. The entire mass that lasted almost three hours, can be watched here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cR1FgPXHi1E.

[2]Egypt’s heart bleeds, December 14, 2016: http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/sectarian/at-boutrossiya-church-egypts-heart-bleeds/18249/

[3] The message can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HFuuKXIfpg

 

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