KEEPING THE FAITH
Despite Bombings, Egypt’s Martyred Christian Church Celebrates Easter
Targeted for slaughter by the so-called Islamic State, poorly protected by the Sisi government, Egypt’s Copts are struggling to survive in their ancient homeland.
TANTA, Egypt—Minutes before the explosion tore through Mar Girgis Church here, David, a 16-year-old altar server, ducked behind a chair to hide his face from a camera. The clergy liked to film the Palm Sunday service, one of the most important days in the Coptic calendar. David hated appearing in the videos. The teenager’s shyness saved his life.
“I looked down and put my arm up to cover my face,” he said. “I’m still not sure what happened but it seemed God was merciful to me.”
In the next seconds a bomb blast ripped through the front of the building, tearing apart members of the congregation and throwing into the air those seated farther back. The force of the explosion knocked David unconscious. He came around minutes later to the sound of people screaming.
“At first I thought I had waked up into a nightmare. It took me a few seconds to realize what happened. I tried to get up, but I couldn’t stand, my leg was bleeding and wouldn’t move.”
The injured secondary school student had a severed artery and was pinned to the floor by body parts and headless corpses, their clothes soaked in blood. He shouted for help.
“It was total chaos, I could see dead bodies all around me, blood was covering everything. Someone finally came and helped me get up. I saw my father running toward me. And then I blacked out again.”
The death toll from last Sunday's attack in Tanta, 90 miles north of Cairo, has climbed to 29, according to Egypt’s health ministry. Seventeen others were killed in a second suicide bombing hours later outside St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria while the Coptic Pope Tawadros II was leading the prayers.
With 46 fatalities, the youngest just five years old, last Sunday was the bloodiest day in decades for the country's nine million Christians. The Egyptian branch of the so-called Islamic State said that the double attack was perpetrated by its suicide bombers, named as Abu al-Baraa al-Masry and Abu Ishaq al-Masry.
In a statement the Sinai-based terror group, which first appeared in Egypt three years ago, bragged it had killed 80 Christians since December and warned that such attacks were just beginning.
"Crusaders and the followers of apostates shall know that the bill between them and us is huge. They shall pay for it with the blood of their sons,” one statement thundered.
ISIS already claimed to be behind the suicide bombing at Cairo’s main cathedral in December, which killed 29 people. In February, nearly 300 Christian families were forced to flee their homes in North Sinai after a string of execution-style killings left seven Copts dead. The families, now struggling to survive in hiding, said they felt hunted after terrorists had compiled a “hit list.” At the time, the group released a 20-minute propaganda video threatening to “liberate” Egypt from Christians, that it referred to as infidels and “polytheists.”
It appears that ISIS, which has lost significant ground in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, is now focusing its attention on Egypt, by far the most populous country in the region. The group’s Egypt branch first appeared in 2014 when a preexisting terror group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis pledged allegiance to the putative “caliph” of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
For years the Sinai group operated more lor less like an ISIS satellite fan club that used the ISIS brand to lend more credibility to its attacks on the security forces. But now, Mokhtar Awad, an expert on Egypt’s jihadists, warns that the group is devoting time, resources, and most importantly talent to the Egypt chapter.
The attacks have certainly become more sophisticated. In September 2015 ISIS claimed to have eluded tight security in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh and downed a Russian passenger jet packed with holiday makers, killing 224.
The group is hoping it can inspired and intensify sectarianism to stir unrest in Egypt at a time when it is seeing “rapid failures in Libya, Syria and Iraq,” Awad told The Daily Beast.
“To the Islamic State sectarianism is the fuse to make these societies combust. It is one of the first steps in creating the stage for chaos needed for their type of activity to strive,” he said. In Iraq a decade ago the group successfully inspired a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites from which the country still has not fully recovered.
“Egypt does of course have the largest Christian community by far compared to any other country in the region. It is also the region’s most populous country. They want to play on the latent sectarianism they see for their own means,” said Awad. ISIS is betting that Christians are to Egypt what the Shia are to Iraq.
So there are mounting fears of further violence on Easter Sunday and with the visit of the Catholic Pope Francis at the end of the month. On Wednesday, the U.S. embassy advised its citizens to avoid “identifiable places of worship” for the next two weeks. The Israeli authorities, meanwhile, closed their Taba border with Egypt and urged all Israelis to immediately leave the holiday camps of South Sinai during Passover.
President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who stormed to power in 2013 touting his war on terror, rushed to try to reassure the nation.
He ordered the military to be deployed to the streets to protect key infrastructure and called for a state of emergency. He then announced the establishment of a new anti-terror body, that would, ominously, take whatever action is needed to “control the whole situation” including “the media, the judiciary, legal, and religious discourse.”
Sisi urged Egyptians to “bear the pain.”
He visited Coptic Pope Tawadros II on Thursday and vowed to do his “utmost” to hunt down the perpetrators.
Meanwhile, the parliament unanimously voted in favor of emergency law, which was in place for three decades under toppled president Hosni Mubarak and was the focus of the 2011 uprising against him. It allows the security forces to sidestep the criminal code, granting them sweeping powers of detention and arrest. It also gives the government the right to monitor the media, crack down on gatherings, and to set up exceptional courts. The president himself is given the right to refer people to trial.
Both the parliament and Sisi warned the press not to stir up social unrest or “harm the nation’s interests,” vague charges that have been used in the past against troublesome reporters.
Critics said these moves would likely give the government a carte blanche to lock up more regime opponents, an action which has indirectly contributed to the rise in terror attacks. The overthrow of elected President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood regime in 2013, and the jailing and killing of his Islamist supporters, has radicalized many and helped inspire support for groups like ISIS.
“For terrorists, attacking Christians is easy, cheap and conveys a message quickly,” says Ishaq Ibrahim, head of religious freedoms at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “For this you need to change the very ideas they [the jihadists] believe, rectify this with coexistence, which the state is not doing.”
Ibrahim says the problems stem from the government and the state which itself discriminates against Christians. He cited the debate over a church building law, legislation supposed to ease ludicrously harsh restrictions on the construction of Christian facilities. The new law, which was adopted at the end of 2016 amid fierce resistance, only permits churches to be built if there is a certain number of Christians in the neighborhood.
“The fact there was even a debate about the issue is proof,” Ibrahim said.
He said years of hardline Islamists attacking Christians with impunity has contributed to the rise in terror attacks against Copts today. The torching of churches, kidnapping of Copts, and ransacking of Christian homes has remained rampant across the country, particularly in places like Minya and Beni Suef in middle Egypt. Instead of jailing those responsible the authorities often force “reconciliation sessions” on the victims, who are made to forgive their assailants, sometimes in exchange for a bit of money. This has only allowed other groups to go further.
There is also a lax attitude toward providing security for Christians, and the Tanta bombing is a tragic example.
A week before last Sunday’s ISIS attack the security forces defused an improvised explosive device in the exact same church. Nevertheless, no changes were made to the security plan in the area even with key religious holidays on the horizon and a rising ISIS threat.
The Tanta and Alexandria attacks followed patterns similar to the Cairo cathedral bombing in December. In that case the bomber, later named by President Sisi as 22-year-old Mahmoud Shafiq Mohamed Mustafa, was caught on CCTV strolling right past a police officer and his metal detector and into the packed church during a Sunday service. Eyewitnesses said Mustafa detonated his suicide vest in the middle of the women’s section.
This is what happened in Tanta, according to the father of David, the wounded altar server. He was seated ten rows from the front that day his son was nearly killed.
“The metal detector was working but we were not stopped anyway,” said David’s father, who did not want his name used. The policemen were not paying attention, he added.
As he waited for prayers to start he noticed a man in his late 30s hurry into the church from the left, next to the men’s section.
“His hair was messy and he looked suspicious, especially as this was a holiday.” His scruffy appearance was out of place in the church packed with families wearing their best clothes for the important service.
The man also stood out as he made a beeline for the bishop’s chair, an ornate marble seat in the front of the church used by the most senior members of the clergy.
“Once he reached it he clicked something and then the bomb went off,” said David’s father.
“The blast knocked me off my seat, when I opened my eyes, I could see pieces of flesh flying, a fire and blood. I could hear glass breaking and people screaming.”
As for David, he remembers that just before he ducked down, he looked at the bishop’s chair, and when woke up, it was gone.
Several other members of congregation as well as those who rushed to the scene after the blast told The Daily Beast the seat had been the epicenter of the blast.
“The explosion came from the bishops’ chair—at the front of the church,” said Sara, 48, who was seated at the back of the women’s section. She remembered thinking it was odd that she wasn’t searched before she went in for prayers.
“The electronic gates were beeping but everyone went in anyway,” she said.
“There were no complete bodies, we were picking our way through parts to try to identify our relatives. We were collecting bits of human flesh in plastic bags,” added Paula, 16, who rushed to the church immediately after the attack.
“We could see from the path of destruction the explosion originated from the bishop’s chair. We believe it was a suicide bomber,” as in December, he said.
In the Alexandria attack, CCTV footage shows the moment the other bomber, with a blue sweater tied around his neck, approaches the cathedral in the exact same way. But he was stopped by police, including policewomen, at the metal detectors. There he detonated his vest.
Worshippers who were inside the church at the time told The Daily Beast the police officers, who had been informed about the Tanta bombing, were visibly nervous and agitated. One officer came into the church three times to usher people out as quickly as possible.
Despite his warnings, and the fact the Coptic Pope was inside, no decisive action was taken to terminate the mass early. No revised security plan was put into place. In fact, security became more lax, a man who is part of the church’s own security detail and was manning the gates at the moment of the attack, but did not want to be named in this report.
“Security was extremely tight until around noon. I don’t know what happened, but the bomber was able to get through the first police line that closed down the street and then make it to the gate I was helping the police guard,” he told The Daily Beast.
CCTV footage now shows that the bomber had been circling the cathedral since 9:00 a.m., which is when the Tanta bomber struck, according to the security guard. That is why the second attack was so much later, he said.
“He managed to get through the police barricade down the street and to where we were standing outside the main gates hours later. Seconds before he approached, a friend called me into the cathedral. If I hadn’t turned inside I would have died. My colleague Am Nissam died because he told the bomber to go through the metal detectors,” he said.
Girgis Bakhoom, 82, says his 47-year-old son Ibrahim, who was selling palm crosses and flowers at the church, was killed in the blast. He said one police officer kept coming into the church asking worshippers to wrap up the service quickly, and that particular police officer was one of seven, including three women officers, who died stopping the bomber from entering the building.
“Why is it that Muslims can openly pray on the streets in public, but we are slaughtered in our own churches which are supposedly protected?” Bakhoum asked.
Christians reeling from the attacks while mourning the loss of their loved ones say all they can do is pray, and many say they are determined to go to church on Easter Sunday. On Good Friday, in both Alexandria and Tanta, worshippers dressed in black attended church despite the bombings. The military deployed armored cars to the Alexandrian cathedral.
Pope Tawadros II, speaking at a somber Good Friday service at Cairo’s heavily guarded main cathedral, cancelled most holiday festivities. “Easter celebrations shouldn’t come at a time of offering condolences to our martyrs,” he said. Decorations would be muted and traditional receptions where people gather and exchange greetings would not be taking place. Several dioceses and monasteries across the country issued similar statements curtailing their celebrations.
“We put our trust in God and pray, that’s it,” said Hanan 56, after visiting her relatives in Tanta’s main hospital. She said those in the burns unit were almost unrecognizable; many had lost eyes, limbs and parts of their faces.
“We feel scared, we feel targeted,” she said. “We must have faith."