The deadly Palm Sunday bombings at two Coptic churches in Egypt jolted the Christian faithful around the world at the start of Holy Week—that precious time of prayer, reflection and reconciliation ahead of the joyous renewal of Easter.
The brazen ISIS attacks that targeted Egypt’s persecuted and vulnerable Coptic Christian minority left at least 44 dead and more than 100 injured. The attacks came four months after a suicide bomber killed 29 worshipers in December at a church in Cairo. The ISIS statement taking responsibility warned of more attacks to come.
Pope Francis, who is scheduled to visit Egypt April 28-29, prayed for the victims in his Palm Sunday Angelus address, calling on those who sow “terror, violence and death” to change their death-dealing ways.
The attacks offer grim reminders that faith can still exact a price, and that Christians, even today, are targets of extremists around the world and the twisted ideologies that propel them.
Indeed, a recently released video by an ISIS affiliate vowed to step up attacks, describing Christians as “infidels” who are empowering the West against Muslims, and the Islamic State (ISIS) itself issued a message calling for attacks on Christians across Egypt.
The first of the Palm Sunday blasts, at St. George’s Church in Tanta, north of Cairo, came during the service while parishioners were singing hymns. The second explosion, outside St. Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of the Orthodox Coptic Christians in Alexandria, took place while the patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, led a service inside.
The patriarch was not injured, and later issued a statement saying, “These acts will not harm the unity and cohesion of the people.”
Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar University, also condemned the attacks, calling them a “despicable terrorist bombing that targeted the lives of innocents.”
Pope Francis, in his Angelus address condemning terrorism, also expressed deepest condolences to “my dear brother, His Holiness Pope Tawadros, the Coptic Church, and the entire beloved Egyptian nation.”
The vast majority of Egypt’s 90 million people are Sunni Muslims; Egypt’s Christians, virtually all of them Coptic, make up about 10 percent of the population.
Pope Francis’s upcoming visit has been billed as a step toward forging stronger bonds between the Church and Muslim leaders. He is scheduled to meet with Pope Tawadros, the grand imam, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
But the Palm Sunday attacks do raise concerns about the pope’s security.
A Vatican spokesman, acknowledging the “heavy” atmosphere in Egypt now, said Pope Francis nevertheless feels that his “mission is to be beside his brothers at the time of difficulty.”
“Now is the real time that he can bring peace and hope to the Egyptian people as a whole and to the Christians of the East, in particular.”
We pray that this is so, just as we pray for the victims of Sunday’s attacks, their families and loved ones, and for all Christians and other people of good will in Egypt and throughout the Middle East.
They are living—and worshipping—in a difficult situation, with no easy solutions in sight.