First the church of Saint Giorgio in Tanta, near Cairo. Then the cathedral of Saint Marc in Alexandria. Forty-four victims, more than hundred and twenty wounded. On the day of Palm Sunday celebration, on the last 9 April, a double kamikaze Attack has extended the list of massacres targeting the Coptic Christians in Egypt (approximately nine million people, 10% of the Egyptian population).
The latest massacres
This small but tenacious community had still in their nostrils the smell of blood, and it was confronted with a new pain. Just four months ago, on Sunday 11 December, the wake of Islamic terrorism had fluctuated tragically in the church of Saint Peter and Paul, adjacent to the cathedral of San Marco in Cairo. Even in that case the count was devastating: 28 dead and 40 wounded.
This time the Terror struck at dawn of the Holy Week. The message sent by Tawadros II patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church to the bishop and to the faithful of the diocese was touching. Escaped by miracle from the explosion in the cathedral of Alexandria, where he had just finished celebrating Mass, the Patriarch wrote, as reported in the Agency Fides, that the victims of the attacks were “called in heaven on the feast day, to bring the branches of palm and olive trees in front of Christ himself”. They add on to the large number of the Copts “called in heaven”. The Coptic Church in Egypt, in fact, is paying a price in blood and persecution really high. No local community, even in turbulent Middle East, knows equal suffering.
Persecution without end
Only in more recent years, the saga of attacks against them seems to know no interruption. On the Eve of New Year 2011, a car bomb exploded in the church of the Saints, in Alexandria, leaving on the footpath the bodies of dozens of faithful without life. It was perhaps the prelude of the riots that have led, shortly afterwards, Hosni Mubarak to resign after thirty years of presidency. And the fall of the regime of Mubarak has coincided with a resurgence of the anti-Christian persecution in the country of the north African region. With the autocrat, the Coptic community enjoyed a certain level of safety. It was Mubarak to call back Shenouda III, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, after the exile to which he was forced by his predecessor Anwar al-Sadat. It was always Mubarak to declare on 7 January, the day on which the Copts celebrate Christmas, as national feast.
That idyll broke in 2011: the rise to power of the Muslim Brothers engulfed Christians in a vortex of attacks by Islamic fundamentalist groups and the repression of the army. It was a real massacre on 9 October of that year, with at least thirty-six Copts killed in clashes with the army in the district of Shudra, in Cairo, where the Christians protested on the streets against the harassment at work by Islamic thugs. The Copts paid their last blood tribute to the government of the Muslim Brothers in summer 2013, shortly after the Chairman Mohamed Bites was deposed by the military. The anger of his supporters broke out against the churches and the institutional forums of Christians: in a few hours they devastated sixty churches, throughout the country.
The advent of the Isis
The Copts are now the target of the so-called Islamic State. In February 2015, the video published on the network on jihadists sites showing the beheading of twenty-one Egyptian Copts workers kidnapped in Libya, aroused consternation throughout the world. Some of them pronounced the name of Christ while the blade sank in the throats. But the black flag of the Isis began to wave even to the winds of Egypt. It is called “Wilayat Sinai”, the self-proclaimed “caliphate” in the North Sinai which is under the active militia in the Egyptian province already since 2011 with the name “Ansar Beit al Maqdis”.
As revealed in 2015 to the Agency Zenit by Mgr. Cyril William Samaan, Bishop Copt-Catholic of Assiut, the birth and development of this core of Islamic terrorists has to be ascribed to the Government Morsi, during which citizenship was granted to about 13,000 Palestinians of Egyptian Sinai accused by the current executive of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to be part of Hamas and to have planned and organized terrorist attacks in the Egyptian territory.
The fight against terror
A hard blow to the Egyptian rib of the Isis was given by the armed forces of Cairo in 2016. An anti-terrorist operation has led to the killing of the leader Abu Duaa al-Ansari and over fifty outstanding elements of the Salafist organization.
It was a concrete sign of the commitment of al-Sisi to protect the Copts from the attacks. The willingness of relaxation is also demonstrated by a law approved in August 2016, which simplifies the construction of Christian churches in the Egyptian territory.
The anti-Christian fury however does not know any obstacles. The terror spreads not only through large massacres. In January, in only ten days, four Christians were killed by Muslims, in Alexandria, Menufia and Assiut. And yet in February, in the northern Sinai, almost one thousand five hundred Copts, i.e. almost the totality of those who live in that province, were put to flight by an intensification of persecution by the Islamic fundamentalists.
Only recently, at the end of March, the situation in the Sinai became normal. Many Christians have returned home, as reported to the agency Fides by Anba Kosman, Bishop Coptic Orthodox of Al Arish and Northern Sinai. The prelate also reported that Masses are celebrated every day and that priests can freely move around on the streets.
It is in this climate where fear and hope mingle continually, that Pope Francis will visit Egypt on 28 and 29 April. The community that the Pontiff will find in the country of the sphinx is a Coptic community oppressed but never tame. The gaze of faith that the Copts show in the face of martyrdom is attested by the words uttered in December, after the attack in Cairo, by the primate Tawadros II: “We give farewell to our dear with a spirit of praise, because we believe that there is no death for those who love God: They will be resurrected in the joy of eternal life”. It is a gaze of faith that is a lesson for all Christians, in this Easter Season.