Pope Tawadros II, pope of Alexandria and patriarch of the See of St Mark, offered reassurance as well as condolences following the bombing of Coptic churches in Tanta and Alexandria on Sunday as worshipers celebrated Palm Sunday and marked the beginning of Holy Week.
“These evil acts will not undermine the unity and cohesion of the Egyptian people in the face of terrorism,” he said.
Speaking about the victims of the attack the pope told Copts: “We are wrought by the pain of separation, but the embrace of Christ gives us strength. We anguish at their departure, but because we love them they remain alive in our hearts… I convey my heartfelt condolences to all grieving families and offer my prayers for their sake, and for the sake of the wounded and injured.”
Aziz Gamil, a priest in Tanta who was following the transfer of victims to hospitals and clinics, told Al-Ahram Weekly: “It’s really hard. We don’t know what to say to our parishioners. We need to find realistic ways to better protect churches and we must bring all involved in terrorism to justice.”
“The terrorists want to spread fear in our homes. They will not succeed. We stand together with Pope Tawadros and the bishops, behind an Egypt that can be safe and secure.”
“The church in Tanta, under Bishop Paulus, has begun dispensing support to the families of the victims, both dead and wounded, of the bomb at St George Church,” Gamil added.
Bishoi Wadie, a priest at the St George Church in Tanta, said the attack would not be allowed to disrupt Easter celebrations and mass would take place “normally” on Saturday evening. Ceremonies in the main Cathedral and the Abanob Church annexed to it would continue as planned.
In Alexandria, an informed source said Easter mass and other rites will be held as normal in St Mark’s Cathedral. Pope Tawadros II had not issued any instructions regarding the suspension of Easter celebrations and the interior of the Coptic Orthodox escaped damage when a bomb was detonated at the Cathedral gates as Pope Tawadros was officiating at the Palm Sunday mass.
Sources close to Tawadros report that the pope has issued a decree prohibiting individuals or private agencies from soliciting material donations for the families of the victims. The sources say the decree is in response to attempts by some to gather donations under false pretences. The church will not tolerate trading in the name of the victims and their families, they said.
The creation of a counter-terrorism council, among the measures taken by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in the aftermath of the bombings, was welcomed by many in the Christian community. Coptic intellectual Kamal Zakher lauded the initiative as “a good step towards focusing efforts on the eradication of terrorist thought”.
“We need to work together to fight the extremism which seeks to destroy our society,” Zakher said. The decision to declare a state of emergency, he added, was “appropriate at the present time in view of these repeated terrorist attacks”.
Karim Kamal, founder of the Federation of Copts for the Sake of the Nation, denounced the bombing of the two churches as attacks against all Egyptians and demanded a tough response to such acts.
“Declaring a state of emergency was necessary in order to deal firmly with terrorists and extremists,” he said. He also supported the creation of the counter-terrorism council and called for a common front to be forged to uproot extremist thought.
Catholic Copt Deputy Patriarch Hani Bakhoum said forming the council was an important step in the fight against terrorism “which threatens the security of Egypt and its people”.
MP Mona Mounir said she would question the government about security failings around churches and told the press the law needed to be changed to allow anyone suspected of involvement in terrorist attacks to be tried before military courts.
Aida Nasif, a member of the Egyptian Council of Churches, described the attacks as an attempt to divide Egyptians by targeting Copts. “These heinous and malicious acts were organised by the forces of international terrorism and carried out by local operatives. We must punish negligence and use all available forums to confront extremism,” she said. Nazif warned that “it requires more than just security measures to defeat the scourge of terrorism.”
Following the attacks members of the Egyptian community in the US had called for a candlelight vigil to be held in Union Square on Wednesday to commemorate the victims of the bombings. Lillian Ethnasios, who initiated the call, said the vigil would not only allow expatriate Egyptians to share the grief of their brothers and sisters in Egypt but remind the world of how Egypt suffers in the course of its war against terrorism.
Nabil Maglaa, chair of the US branch of the Society of Egypt for all Egyptians, called on President Al-Sisi to fulfil his pledge to promote a more tolerant religious discourse. He also demanded that terrorist suspects be tried before military courts.
A church source told the Weekly that following the president’s declaration of a state of emergency security had been tightened around most churches. Soldiers and tanks had been stationed around the Cathedral following the decree and police numbers increased. The source stressed services would continue as scheduled throughout Holy Week, “delivering a powerful response to terrorism by making it clear terrorists will not prevent us from prayer”.
Reverend Rafik Gresh, media spokesman for the Catholic Church in Egypt, confirmed that military and police forces had been deployed around Catholic churches since the state of emergency decree went into effect. “We hope that these extraordinary measures curtail terrorist attacks,” he said.