A sad fact of life for Christians in many parts of the world is that the holiest days on their calendar also tend to be peak periods in terms of exposure to lethal assaults. Terrorists who see Christians as targets like to strike on holy days, both for the symbolic value and also, from a practical point of view, because churches tend to be especially full.
Sadly, the latest proof of the point comes from Egypt, where two Coptic Orthodox churches were bombed on Sunday – one in Tanta in the Nile delta, about 75 miles outside Cairo, and another in the historic city of Alexandria.
At latest count, the death toll from those two attacks stood at 46.
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.
Christians account for roughly ten percent of Egypt’s population, making it the biggest Christian community in the Middle East, and the Coptic Orthodox are by far the largest single denomination in the country.
On Monday, Father Rafic Greich, a Greek Melkite priest in Cairo and spokesman for the Catholic Church in Egypt, appeared on “The Crux of the Matter” show on the Catholic Channel, which is broadcast on the Sirius XM network, to talk about the bombings and their aftermath.
Among other things, Greich said:
- The fact that the Vatican confirmed on Monday that Pope Francis will still visit Egypt April 28-29 was hugely important for the country’s Christians, who were worried that it would be canceled or postponed in the wake of Sunday’s attacks.
- Most Christians still support the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, but are hoping that he makes security for Christian sites a “top priority.”
- The real question in Egypt isn’t even security but a popular Muslim mindset, fed in mosques, which sometimes fosters anti-Christian prejudice. On that score, Greich has doubts that the country’s “religious establishment” is serious about change.
The following are excerpts from the “Crux of the Matter” interview with Greich, conducted by Crux editor John Allen and co-editor Inés San Martín.
I know you’re familiar with the two Christian sites in Egypt that suffered bomb blasts on Palm Sunday. What can you tell us about them?
The first bomb exploded in Tanta, which is about 75 miles outside of Cairo. It’s the center of the Egyptian delta. It’s a place with many, many Christians, and yesterday was Palm Sunday like everywhere in the world. The church was full of people, and the bomb exploded in the middle of the people who were praying, very near to the altar. That was new, that somebody with a bomb could go all the way to the altar and set it off there. In the past, suicide bombers have blown themselves up at the doors of the church, not at the altar. There were many injuries … at this stage, more than 45 people have died, and 170 were injured.
The second bomb was in Alexandria, and it’s the most important, and also most significant, because it’s the church where Pope Tawadros II was praying [Tawadros is the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the largest Christian denomination in Egypt.] One good thing is that the pope had just left the church a few seconds before the bomb exploded. [Tawadros was unharmed in the attack.] This is the second time there’s been an attempt on the life of Pope Tawadros. The first was on Dec. 11 of last year, with a bombing in Cairo just a few yards away from the cathedral of the pope. It’s a message to the pope, that here we are and we’re threatening you.
What’s the general mood among Christians in Egypt in the wake of these two attacks on such a holy day?
The mood is very heavy. People are sad, but although they knew that these bombings had happened, the churches even in the evening were full of people praying. It was Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week, and it’s as if the people wanted to say, ‘We’re still going to church, and we’re still going to pray.’
It’s also important to say that our brothers, the Muslims who are living with us, were also very sad. They sent their condolences. If you saw yesterday at the time they were burying the bodies from the attacks, many, many neighbors from the Muslim community who live in Tanta and Alexandria were present. They’re the first to be as sad as the Christians.
Are you taking extra security precautions at churches in light of what’s happened?
I will tell you that we are taking measures, and also the government is taking security very seriously. There are policemen and policewomen outside the churches. We saw that yesterday in Alexandria, when the first to die was a police officer. Inside the church, we try, although it’s difficult, to secure the people who are entering into the church.
However, one of these criminal acts is always designed in the mind of the criminal. That’s why it’s very difficult to predict a bombing or any kind of attempt that could happen. That’s why I say that maybe our security, the Egyptian police or the intelligence service, don’t have enough information about these people, because surely there are cells that are preparing for these bombings. There is not enough intelligence about these cells for the police to try to prevent, as much as possible, an attempt at a church or anywhere else.
Pope Francis will be in Egypt at the end of this month. He’ll be meeting Pope Tawadros, and visiting al-Azhar. What are your expectations for the visit?
The big news just a few hours ago was that the pope did not cancel or postpone his visit to Egypt. We were asking ourselves if he would come or not after what happened yesterday, and it’s legitimate to think like this. But the pope is a courageous man, and I think his mission is to confirm and be in solidarity with his brothers, the Christians of the East, Orthodox or Catholic or Protestants.
This is the first mission of the successor of Peter. It’s like in the Gospel of St. John, what Jesus asks of Peter is to confirm his brothers in the faith. That’s what we need, we need a message of peace, a message of hope, and when he comes that’s what he’ll do.
As you know President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was just in Washington, praised by President Donald Trump for doing a “great job” and hailed as a partner in the fight against terrorism. He’s generally enjoyed strong Christian support since he came to power in 2014, but what are Christians thinking today?
I think most Christians are still supportive of President Sisi. Some people maybe would think that there’s a security lacuna that makes them a little afraid. I hope that he and the government, like he did yesterday, will make security a top priority.
However, in Egypt that real question isn’t security, it’s not the policemen. The top priority is education. It’s the mindset of people who hear these terrorists and fundamentalists, and they very much sympathize with them. This is the problem, and this is what has to change. The religious discourse given in the mosques has to change, because people need to be trained to be more open to their brothers.
You think Sisi is serious about that?
He’s serious, but I think that the religious establishment is not serious at all.
Do you have any hope that when Pope Francis goes to Al-Azhar and is received by that religious establishment, it might change something?
Change comes very, very, very slowly, and often it’s just for show. That’s my personal opinion, it’s not the opinion of the Church, but I know these people very, very well. It’s all for show, to show that they’re open, they’re people of dialogue, etc., but deep inside it’s not very true.