In a recent letter to His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, Abba Seraphim wrote of the “profound sadness” with which the British Orthodox clergy and faithful have been following reports of the tragedy at Alexandria, “our hearts are very heavy for the families of those who lost their loved ones in this wicked act of violence. We stand beside all our Coptic brothers and sisters in their grief and we yearn for a peaceful and just outcome.”
He expressed wholehearted support for His Holiness’ constant message for a just and peaceful response to the problems facing the Copts and assured him that all his “British Orthodox clergy and children unite with our Mother Church in that prayer and our churches and communities will be sharing in the days of prayer and reflection which have been planned here in the British Isles.”
Whilst forwarding on messages received from hierarchs and clergy of other churches, which had been sent to him, Abba Seraphim spoke warmly of their “sympathy and loving support” and their wish “to stand beside us when we commemorate the new Alexandrian martyrs as well as the other victims who survived. Their respect for the Coptic Orthodox Church and its constant call for peace and harmony in the face of the most devastating provocation has been a potent witness to our fidelity to the Gospel. “
As the Christmas celebrations of the Coptic Church approaches Abba Seraphim believed that “the world will see and respect that even these terrible crimes cannot deprive us of the joy at the Lord’s Incarnation. The shadow of recent events, which enjoins that this will be a muted and modest celebration can never separate us from the love of God, which is manifested in the glorious incarnation of His Only-Begotten Son for our salvation.”
Having promised to investigate thoroughly the attacks on al-Qidiseen Church in Alexandria, the Egyptian government needs to decide whether any actions or failures on the part of Major-General Adel Aly Labib, who has been Governor of Alexandria since 2006, and the Minister of the Interior, General Habib Ibrahim El Adly, contributed in any respect to this tragedy. The Governor claimed that the attack had nothing to do with sectarianism, but it should be noted that:
- A specific threat to attack Coptic Churches was made publicly by Al Qaeda in Iraq at the beginning of November, which was condemned by President Mubarak, who vowed he would protect the Copts;
Where was the heightened security ? What checks were being made on those entering or loitering near the church ?
- For some weeks regular vociferous demonstrations against Pope Shenouda and the Coptic Church, with chanting of inflammatory and insulting slogans, have been taking place after Friday prayers in mosques in Alexandria and, that same evening in front of Al Kayed Gohar Mosque in Alexandria, Salafi Muslims held their seventeenth such demonstration;
Why were these demonstrations permitted, when a demonstration by Copts at Omrania in Giza was dispersed with live ammunition and showed security forces throwing stones at Coptic demonstrators ? Why have anti-Coptic demonstrations been permitted since the attack ?
- It is reliably reported that following the explosion, the mosque adjacent to the bombed church began broadcasting comments congratulating the Mujahedeen for their great achievement until the Interior Ministry cut off the electricity supply;
If national unity is the government’s aim, why are mosques allowed to routinely broadcast anti-Christian propaganda;
- Security forces withdrew from guarding the church one hour before the blast leaving only four policemen on guard;
Can promises to protect Copts and the churches be taken seriously when security is so lax, yet the Security forces always appear in large numbers in response to Coptic demonstrations ?
- Video footage shows that following the atrocity Muslims began chanting “Allah Akbar” (God is Great) which incited the distraught Copts who survived;
As the attack was specifically aimed at the church and timed to coincide with worshippers leaving, how can the Governor seriously claim that the attack was aimed at Muslims and Christians alike ?
- Following the clash between Copts and Muslims after the incident, the security forces reappeared and started firing rubber bullets at the crowd as well as using tear gas on the crowd, including some of the wounded survivors.
Why were the Security forces not more pro-active in preventing the attack, assisting the victims rather than appearing to be partisan in their handling of such outbursts of outrage by the Copts ?
- It is reported that the State security is preventing relations and friends from visiting some of the victims in hospital.
How is it possible now to exercise such tight security over hospital visits when nothing of the sort was put in place at the church ?
According to the most recent press reports a suicide bomber exploded his device outside al-Qidiseen (St. Mark & St. Peter the Seal of Martyrs) Coptic Orthodox Church in Sidi Beshr, in Alexandria as worshippers were leaving Mass, left at least 21 worshippers dead and 43 people wounded.
Commenting on these events, Abba Seraphim said, “Once again we have woken up to a new civil year with news of a horrifying and brutal attack on Coptic Orthodox Christians. Through the timing of this attack we are reminded that as the world celebrated a new millennium on the night of 31 December 1999, the Christians of El-Kosheh suffered the nightmare of a sectarian mob on the rampage, security forces which failed to intervene and inhuman and degrading treatment leaving many dead and wounded.
It is a matter of deep sadness that the intervening years have not seen any significant improvement in the lot of Coptic Christians but have instead been marked by sporadic and increasingly frequent outbursts of violence in which Christians have been clearly targetted. Those who perpetuate such crimes are heartless and cruel and act against the tenets of their religion which enjoins all who believe in the one God to develop peace in their relations with others. On the contrary, those who commit such wickedness follow in the footsteps of Satan.
Because of the universal celebration of the new millennium, the atrocities in El-Kosheh just over a decade ago, took some time to attract the attention of the international media, whereas, last night’s events hit the headlines throughout the world. Perhaps the world has finally become aware of the seriousness of the situation in Egypt.
Despite professed assurances of security for all its citizens, the Egyptian government is failing to provide the protection which is its fundamental responsibility. Last year, worshippeers at Nag Hamadi were attacked and killed as they left church after the Christmas Eve Mass (6/7 January) and extremist groups have vociferously threatened further violence against Copts both in Egypt and abroad. Are we to wait powerlessly for them to consummate their threats or may we expect a serious mobilisation of the state’s security services to prevent history repeating itself ?
What is encouraging, however, is to see that the Egyptian government has on this occasion responded swiftly and decisively to the incident in Alexandria by voicing strong condemnation and practical support. President Hosni Mubarak vowed to track down those behind the fatal bomb attack: “This terrorist act has shaken the conscience of the nation …. All of Egypt was targeted, and blind terrorism does not distinguish between Copt and Muslim.” The Ministry of Health and the Governorate of Alexandria provided rapid assistance for those wounded in the bombing by flying them to specialist hospitals in Cairo and reports spoke of Muslims donating blood. The Minister of Social Solidarity announced an exceptional decision to offer urgent financial assistance to the victims and their families: £5,000 to the family of each of those killed and £1,000 for each person injured.
The terrorist group, Jama’at al-Jihad al-Islami also known as the Community of Holy Warriors, a terrorist organisation affiliated with al-Qaeda, is believed to be responsible for the incident. It is clearly in their interest to foment sectarian strife in Egypt as the government of President Mubarak has no sympathy with such groups. The Dean of Al-Azhar University spoke of his pain and grief at “this criminal incident” which tried to undermine national unity. His Holiness Pope Shenouda echoed this theme, saying it was “aimed at destabilising the country’s stability and security” and that such criminals are “the enemies of Christians and Muslims alike and they do not want good for this country, and seek to foment sedition inside.”
The Coptic Church has always supported appeals to national unity and H.H. Pope Shenouda said it was too early to indict any of the powers, preferring to leave this matter to the investigating authorities. If the Egyptian government can utilise these common feelings of outrage whilst at the same time more publicly redressing some of the imbalance which has led to just grievances from the Coptic community, the cause of national unity will be strengthened. Whilst no-one accuses the government of complicity in such attacks, injustices unresolved may be exploited by extremists, whose failure to achieve success in the recent elections does not mean they have gone away. Until it demonstrates a willingness to address the deeper concerns of the Coptic community in both a committed and effective way, Egypt’s government will be seen to be neglecting its primary duty of ensuring the security and welfare of all its citizens. We must pray that out of these terrible events some lasting good may yet come.”