Irony can emerge from the midst of tragedy. While the world awaits the emergence of good – from somewhere, somehow – irony is often first to make its appearance on the scene.
On Monday, January 3, two days after the horrific bombing at the Church of Two Saints, St. Mark and Pope Peter in Alexandria, the government sent a construction crew to repair damage caused to the church by the blast. Christian demonstrators, however, prevented them from entering the premises, stating that damage and blood must remain until the perpetrators are brought to justice. While their response is understandable in light of the circumstances, other observers may notice another angle: Christians often criticize the government for complicating or preventing church construction, repair, or renovation. In this instance, it is the Christians who prevent the government from restoring the church to its original state.
Since the bombing there have been angry Christian demonstrations throughout Egypt, many of them violent. A representative video, with English subtitles, can be found on the al-Masry al-Youm website. The following is a sampling of recent events. All statements are as reported in various Egyptian newspapers; sources can be tracked by following the links.
Immediately after the bombing area Christians swarmed to the scene and clashed with security forces. It is also reported that they stoned a nearby mosque.
On Monday the demonstrations began in earnest. During the funeral of the deceased, Christians chanted anti-government slogans. Demonstrations broke out at the papal cathedral in Cairo, in which 43 policemen were injured. Three of the most prominent Islamic leaders in the country had come to pay their condolences to the cathedral to Pope Shenouda, but their cars were assaulted while there. 90 people were injured during demonstrations in Shubra, a section of Cairo with a large Christian population. Thousands of Christians joined with activists in a protest in downtown Cairo, during which time 47 were arrested and 20 cars smashed in. One headline read: “Angry Coptic demonstrations sweep Cairo and governorates.” A popular protest chant was: “With our souls and our blood, we will defend the cross.”
On Tuesday the violence continued. In Giza protestors blocked the ring road around the city. In one location in Cairo demonstrations led to the injury of 20 Christians and 37 policemen. Throughout the country 125 policemen were injured.
Immediate context can be traced not only to anger stemming from the bombing, but to Christian anger that has been swelling for some time. The action in Giza to block the ring road is the very same strategy employed a month earlier in late November, to protest what was understood as government interference in a church building project. This, and other more violent Christian protest, eventually led to government security forces using live ammunition which resulted in the death of two protestors and the hospitalization of dozens.
Other events could be summoned in which Christians have been largely passive recipients of violence, at times accusing security forces of lending a hand. Other times still they have been left wondering why justice was never served to perpetrators. In many of these cases the violence was due, at least partially, to normal community tensions, during which religious differences caused the spark that exploded the conflict. All the same, many Christians view security as their problem, rather than their protection.
There is substantial irony in the Christian community, self-understood to be beleaguered by security violence, now violently confronting the security apparatus. Elsewhere, there are emerging signs of good. The sources above also describe significant outpourings of interreligious protest against the bombing. Thousands of Muslims and Christians demonstrated together, in both Cairo and Alexandria. They carried signs uniting the cross and the crescent, lifting high their Bibles and Qur’ans.
Certain Muslim groups have even responded creatively. Eight thousand Muslims have signed up for an initiative to ‘go to the churches and die with them’, proposing to create human shields around church locations. In the aforementioned neighborhood of Shubra, Muslims went to the churches and distributed sweets and flowers to entering churchgoers.
It must be understood that the majority of violent Christian protestors come from poorer and underdeveloped sections of urban Egypt. These tend to be young, and their poverty and lack of education, shared by all Egyptians in their areas, contributes to their easy radicalization. In one particularly disconcerting scene, depicted on the video at about the 3:50 mark, Muslim counter-protestors chanted at Christians, “With our blood and our souls, we defend you Prophet Muhammad.” Though not captured on the video, clashes erupted between Muslims and Christians in circumstances like these. Religion plays a role, but social, political, and economic factors lay the groundwork.
Christian leadership has done its best to counsel patience and calm. Bishop Bisanti of Helwan, a large area on the southern outskirts of Cairo, states that this agitation of Coptic youth is due to shock, and is a temporary phenomenon. Pope Shenouda urges the Christians to have self-control, and priests in general have been urging their congregants to resist anything which leads to further sectarian tensions. This is necessary advice, absolutely required given the circumstances.
It would be difficult to expect more, but the thousands of Christians who have joined Muslims in denouncing the action are beginning to act upon the advice of Bishop Musa, bishop of youth. Imagining the bomber to be an Egyptian, he declared him to be a traitor to the nation, not just a criminal against Christians. Furthermore, he urged the people: Love is the answer.
It is an act of love to join with fellow citizens to set aside religious differences, even religious tensions, and project one voice to renounce violence and assert national unity. But it is also true that this author has not yet seen reports of Christian creative love, such as that evidenced by the Muslims mentioned above. There is little fault, for who can think of blessings when the natural human instinct is to curse?
Yet it is hoped that Christians might be able to find expressions of creative love to offer to those beyond their natural Muslim allies who rallied together with them. Here is one idea:
Currently, collective Christian anger and frustration is aimed at security. Rightly or wrongly, many Christians view the security apparatus as negligent, if not complicit, in their sufferings over the last few decades. Following this attack, one week before Coptic Christmas, the government is sure to place the maximum security presence around each and every church, to prevent a subsequent attack.
Though intensified, this is not a new procedure. Each week as my family goes to church, we pass by two or three security guards at the entrance. These have been assigned their post in precaution; there have been attacks, though far less severe in scale, on churches before. Most all worshippers enter church without giving the slightest pause to their presence. Most often these guards sit idly and stare out into space. They have become part of the established church architecture.
This coming Thursday evening, January 6, Coptic Christmas Eve, everyone will be on full alert, and no Christian will enter church unmindful of the security presence. What will their visceral emotions be?
One year ago to the day, six Christians were shot dead exiting Christmas Eve mass in an attack on a church in Nag Hamadi in Upper Egypt. In this attack a Muslim security guard was also killed. One week ago to the day, a bomb exploded and killed 22 worshippers at a church in Alexandria.
For Christians, will your church be next? For security, will your church be next?
Christians have legitimate space to be frustrated with security as a system, but on January 6, they and the individual security guards at their churches will all be in the same boat. These guards are not volunteers; they are on assignment. All the same, their life is on the line.
Imagine the goodwill that might develop if each Christian worshipper shook the hand of a security guard on his way into the service. Imagine if he stopped, looked the guard in the eye, and thanked him for his service. What if they took a moment, realized the gravity of the situation, and cried together? What if this occurred in every church throughout Egypt?
I am not under the presumption that many Egyptian Christians will read this text. But if you do, and you believe this idea has merit, please sow this seed among your fellow believers. In times like these, hope must be found in creative expressions of love. Egyptian Muslims have taken the lead in certain places; it is fully understandable that Egyptian Christians are lagging behind. More than anything else, they need now to be the recipients of love.
Their faith, though, calls them to more. They believe they have been loved undeservedly by God. Having received, they must now give. In many of their eyes, security is among the least deserving of all Egyptians. May they embrace them unconditionally. May they find greater and deeper expressions that ring far more powerfully than this simple idea. May they transform evil into good.
Otherwise, it is only irony and sadness which will continue to emerge from this tragedy.