The Coptic Church in Egypt is planning subdued Easter celebrations, a week after attacks on two churches during Palm Sunday festivities killed at least 45 people.
The main Easter liturgy, a midnight Mass, will go on as usual, but the celebrations which usually happen during Easter day have been cancelled.
Bishop Angaelos is the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, and he told Crux the attacks have left Christians in Egypt concerned and saddened, but added “I haven’t heard the word fear used by anybody.”
The Christian community makes up about 10% of Egypt’s 92 million people, and the vast majority of those belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The community has suffered a series of attacks over the past months, with Islamic radical groups, including ISIS, claiming responsibility.
The attacks last Sunday happened in the city of Tanta – located in the Nile delta about 75 miles outside Cairo – and in the historic city of Alexandria, which is the patriarchal seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The bombing in Alexandria was especially important because it took place at the church where Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox church, was leading Palm Sunday services.
As it happens, he had departed just a few moments before the bomb went off and was unharmed. It was, however, the second attempt on his life in the space of five months.
Angaelos said fighting radicalism within the Muslim community “is a long term problem, and it needs a long term solution.”
The bishop said he thinks the leadership of the Muslim community in the country, “especially the scholars,” needs to look at education in Egypt, and needs “to try to uproot a school of hatred and intolerance of Christians, that has become more apparent and lends itself to this kind of radicalization.”
“And there needs to be a challenging of the religious precepts that are being used as justification for attacks like this,” Angaelos continued. “That can’t come from outside the Muslim community, it must come from within, and then of course we can then support them in what they say.”
Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the country on April 28-29, and shortly after the attacks, the Vatican confirmed the pope would not change his plans, a decision Angaelos called “a very honorable and courageous thing to do.
“Certainly, Pope Francis has been very outspoken for years now about the plight of Christians in the Middle East, and of course in Egypt,” the bishop said.
“I know that he is leading an initiative with the foremost Islamic institution in the Middle East, which is Al Azhar, which is based in Cairo, to do more with Christian-Muslim relations,” Angaelos continued, “with this just having happened, it of course hopefully will give grounds to a very serious conversation about these attacks and similar attacks and again the teachings and the indoctrination that leads to them.”
Bishop Angaelos spoke with Crux earlier this week by telephone, and the following is a transcript of that conversation.
Crux: What will Easter be like in Egypt this week?
Angaelos: We actually mark our Easter Resurrection feast with a midnight Mass on the Saturday night, so the instructions that have come from the Synod to all the churches around Egypt is that the liturgical services – the Mass itself – will go on as usual, but there will be no festivities the following day.
What is the feeling within the Christian community? After all, these latest attacks are not isolated events.
There is a little sadness, of course, and there is a connection of familiarity because people who went to attend Palm Sunday liturgies, were like many millions of Copts around Egypt who did so, and then were subjected to this kind of attack, so this will resonate with a lot of people. They will understand their experience, they will understand what it meant for families to be at Church together, to celebrate together, and indeed to experience this horror together.
At the same time, I think that Christians will continue to go to Church, so all it really will do is not deter them, but make them go while they are more aware of their vulnerability, so that in itself is going to be very trying.
Is there fear in the community?
I have spoken to many, many people across Egypt since then, starting from the Bishop of Tanta himself, to His Holiness the Pope Tawadros, to other bishops, to congregation members, to friends I have – one of whom was actually in the Church of St. George in Tanta as the explosion happened – not a single one of them has used their word ‘fear.’ They are concerned, they’re saddened, but I haven’t heard the word ‘fear’ used by anybody.
What about in the diaspora community? I know the Coptic community is still very Egypt-centered, and hasn’t experienced the same numbers of people leaving as other Christian communities in the Middle East, but what is the feeling?
That’s right. That’s why we don’t consider ourselves a diaspora, because diaspora communities are usually communities that have had a mass exodus from their countries, whereas 90% of Coptic Christians still live in Egypt.
For people outside of Egypt, of course, there is a concern for their relatives, and their friends, and their communities. As we all know, it is sometimes easier to be within the particular situation because one understands the dynamics, rather than thinking about it from a distance and feeling hopeless to be able to support them in any way.
So outside of Egypt, many of our parishes and our communities are feeling a huge sense of concern for their brothers and sisters in Egypt, but they will also be carrying them in their prayers as they go into …the feast of the Resurrection.
Do you think the government is doing enough to protect the Christian community?
There are security measures in place. Of course, more could be done. We have seen attack after attack over the past months, and I don’t see an intensifying of security.
I hope as a result of this horrendous exercise of inhumanity that security is taken more seriously, particularly because it will be at a time when there will be so many people in the streets going to and from churches, and in the churches themselves.
The so-called Islamic State has claimed responsibility for these attacks. Do you think the Islamic leadership within Egypt has been doing enough to fight within the Muslim community in the country?
I think the first thing that needs to be done is a realization that this is a long term problem, and it needs a long term solution. So I think the leadership of the Muslim community, especially the scholars, needs to look at education in Egypt, need to try to uproot a school of hatred and intolerance of Christians, that has become more apparent and lends itself to this kind of radicalization.
And there needs to be a challenging of the religious precepts that are being used as justification for attacks like this. That can’t come from outside the Muslim community, it must come from within, and then of course we can then support them in what they say.
Of course there are condemnations of particular acts and incidents, but something more needs to be said about the actual principles and the teachings behind the acts.
Pope Francis is visiting at the end of the month. He is of course visiting the small local Catholic community, and will have an ecumenical visit with the Coptic Church. Another reason is to visit the Muslim community. What positives do you think can come from that meeting?
Certainly, Pope Francis has been very outspoken for years now about the plight of Christians in the Middle East, and of course in Egypt. I know that he is leading an initiative with the foremost Islamic institution in the Middle East, which is Al Azhar, which is based in Cairo, to do more with Christian-Muslim relations. With this just having happened, it of course hopefully will give grounds to a very serious conversation about these attacks and similar attacks and again the teachings and the indoctrination that leads to them.
I am also sure that his own Catholic community will be very, very happy to see His Holiness, the pope; as well, of course, as our own pope, Pope Tawadros and our community will be very happy to welcome him to Egypt, and to be able to celebrate this sense of unity and oneness we have, especially as Pope Francis has said in the past with the ecumenism of blood, the ecumenism of martyrs, that we have all experienced over the centuries.
What is the state of relations between the Catholic and Coptic Churches right now?
We are in varied relations, thank God. There is between the two heads of the Churches, there is a very good relationship. I was blessed enough to have been with Pope Tawadros when he went to the Vatican in 2013 to visit Pope Francis, and that was on the fortieth anniversary of the signing of an agreement on Christology between our Churches.
At the international level, there is an international dialogue between the Vatican and the Oriental Orthodox family of Churches. Here in Britain, I’m co-founder and co-chair of a regional forum between the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and the Oriental Churches.
So at every level, I think we are working together theologically, ecumenically; but also with our daily witness, and our daily expression and response to the things that might be happening in the community.
What are your hopes for the visit by Pope Francis to Egypt?
My first hope is that it is a very successful, peaceful, and safe journey for him, and I am very thankful that he has decided in light of what has just happened to go on with the visit; I think it is a very honorable and courageous thing to do. I hope it is just a continuation of what has already been established and built upon for decades now in our relationships together as Churches.
But also that as a platform for interreligious dialogue, whether it is the Vatican and Al Azhar or the Coptic Orthodox Church and Al Azhar, that we continue to look for solutions to solve this spiralling culture of violence and intolerance against Christians.