One year ago this evening Egypt was rocked by an explosion in Alexandria, killing twenty-one and injuring over 170, at the Two Saints’ Church in the Sīdī Bishr region. One year before that, at Coptic Christmas on January 7, six Christians were killed along with a Muslim security guard at a church in Naj' Hamādī, in the governorate of Qena, when a Muslim opened fire as they exited following mass.
It has been a difficult spell for Egypt as a whole, and for its Christians in particular. This year opened with a revolution holding great promise of Muslim-Christian unity, but has been largely displaced with liberal-Islamist political competition and attacks on Copts in Atfīh, Imbābah, Maspero, and elsewhere. The nation is trembling, but some hopeful Copts see connections, in which God intervenes to avenge his children.
In Egyptian culture a death is commemorated on the 40th day, as loved ones gather to remember the deceased. Back in September of 1981 then-President Sadat arrested over 1500 political opponents, and within this sweep he banished Pope Shenouda to a monastery withdrawing official recognition of his leadership. Before the 40th day fell, Sadāt was assassinated by the hand of a Muslim extremist.
Fast forward to Alexandria, and a similar pattern emerges. The Two Saints’ Church was bombed on January 1. Though the government blamed Islamic extremists from Gaza, it is widely believed to have been the work of Habīb al-'Adlī, President Mubārak’s Minister of the Interior. Roughly forty days later, on February 11, President Mubārak resigned his position following a revolution which appeared out of nowhere.
Incidentally, it was also roughly forty days after the massacre of mostly Coptic protestors at Maspero on October 9, that the government of 'Isām Sharaf fell during the clashes of Muhammad Mahmūd Street.
Has God been at work in Egypt, redeeming the blood of Christians through political events? While largely open to interpretation, it is noteworthy this has not been the desire of the Two Saints’ Church.
The Coptic Orthodox Church maintains its identity as a church of martyrs. The church calendar begins Year One counting from the time of the Roman Diocletian persecution in the 4th Century; saints are commemorated in icons, relics, and hymns of praise. Following this spirit, the Two Saints’ Church dedicated space to the memory of these modern day martyrs.
The cross in the picture above houses a bloody cloth salvaged from the bombing, but the selected verse is telling. Quoting Steven, the first Christian martyr, it calls out: Oh Lord, do not hold this sin against them (Acts 7:60).
It is very powerful, considering further the commemoration to the right of the cross.
The mural of Jesus was originally outside the church at street level, when it was damaged by the blast. Damaged also was the façade of the church, splattered with blood. Damaged completely were those whose pictures now ring the mural of Jesus, having received the crown of martyrdom. They now have their own hymn of praise to the left (translated below), and the maroon box overflowing with paper represents prayer requests for which their intercession is asked.
When the explosion happened I had never been to Alexandria. Inquiries about the area gathered that the Sīdī Bishr area in which the church was located was a poorer district, and I imagined the church to be along these lines as well. Original video from inside the church at the time of the explosion does not suggest a place of great wealth either. It appears to be just a simple place of worship.
A recent visit to Alexandria revealed it to be quite the opposite.
Upon reflection, it is fair to wonder about the oft-repeated Coptic practice of building elaborate churches amidst areas of poverty. It is also fair to wonder about the dueling massive places of worship on opposite sides of the street, and what this conveys of Egypt. Yet the primary impression I received from my visit was the audacity of the attack in its chosen location.
Alexandria as a city is the birthplace of Christianity in Egypt and the original seat of the Coptic papacy. I cannot say why the Two Saints’ Church was chosen out of the many places of Christian worship in Alexandria. Clearly, however, a message was delivered – striking at a place of Coptic ecclesiastic pride. This was no small and easily targeted church. It was a slap in the face targeting Coptic comeuppance.
What was the message exactly cannot be known, at least until the perpetrators are properly convicted. Until now the revolutionary government has not reopened investigations, despite repeated legal requests from Alexandria’s local church leadership. Yet given the uncertainty, and given the carnage, the response is all the more Christ-like:
Oh Lord, do not hold this sin against them.
As the Egyptian revolution sputters along, at times bloodily, this is a message in dire need of remembrance. One year following Alexandria the blood of these pre-revolutionary martyrs calls out from the ground, saying, ‘Where is your brother?’ Muslims and Christians must rediscover such unity, if the gains from the revolution are to be preserved.
Song of Praise for the Martyrs of the Two Saints’ Church
Note: After each line is a repeated refrain: The martyrs of the Two Saints’ Church
The final refrain: The mention of your name in the mouths of all believers – Everyone says: Oh God of the martyrs of the Two Saints’ Church, take care of us all