Tragic new year for Egyptian Christians

I went to church on New Year’s Eve, as many do. In the Lutheran church, we mark the eve of the Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord. Many black Protestant congregations have Watch Night services, commemorating the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Many other Christians simply mark the new year. It’s so easy to take for granted the peace and ease with which we attended church in the United States.

But in Baghdad, the victims of one of the latest attacks on Christians were buried. Alexandria, Egypt, worshipers leaving their mass were greeted by a powerful car bomb, which killed at least 21 and injured another 100.

There is a lot of coverage of this horrible attack, as you might imagine. You can watch a video at Reuters, and read stories at the BBC, Reuters (with a helpful fact box about violence and death Christians in Egypt have faced in the last two years), Los Angeles Times and (with a little digging) CNN. I should warn you that the pictures and videos on some of these sites are very graphic.

If you read just one story, though, you could do worse than this Associated Press report by Maggie Michael and Lee Keath. It begins by discussing the angry protests that broke out in the wake of the bombing. Here’s how the attack is described:

Nearly 1,000 Christians were attending the midnight Mass at the Saints Church in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, said Father Mena Adel, a priest at the church. The service had just ended, and some worshippers were leaving the building when the bomb went off about a half hour after midnight, he said.

“The last thing I heard was a powerful explosion and then my ears went deaf,” Marco Boutros, a 17-year-old survivor, said from his hospital bed. “All I could see were body parts scattered all over — legs and bits of flesh.”

Blood splattered the facade of the church, a painting of Jesus inside, and a mosque across the street. The blast mangled at least six cars on the street, setting some ablaze. As bodies were taken away after daybreak, some in the congregation waved white sheets with the sign of the cross emblazoned on them with what appeared to be the victim’s blood.

Health Ministry spokesman Abdel-Rahman Shahine said the death toll stood at 21, with 97 wounded, almost all Christians. Among the wounded were the three policemen and an officer guarding the church.

The article describes some of the history of attacks against Christians. We are reminded of the bombings from 2004 to 2006 that hit three tourist resorts in the Sinai peninsula, killing 125 people. Is this homegrown terrorism or the result of foreign meddling? The article looks at the issue from all sides and explains that Alexandria is no longer the cosmopolitan city of old but becoming a stronghold for Islamic hard-liners. In 2006, there were stabbings at three Alexandria churches. The article also reflects on the Islamist terror wave of the 1990s, which peaked with a massacre of 60 tourists in Luxor. What contributes to the conflict?:

Christians, mainly Orthodox Copts, are believed to make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s mainly Muslim population of nearly 80 million people, and they have grown increasingly vocal in complaints about discrimination. In November, hundreds of Christians rioted in the capital, Cairo, smashing cars and windows after police violently stopped the construction of a church. The rare outbreak of Christian unrest in the capital left one person dead.

The bombing was the deadliest violence involving Christians in Egypt since at least 20 people, mostly Christians, were killed in sectarian clashes in a southern town in 1999. In the most recent significant attack, seven Christians were killed in a drive-by shooting on a church in southern Egypt during celebrations for the Orthodox Coptic Christmas a year ago.

Eruptions of Muslim-Christian violence are often intermeshed with local tribal or personal disputes. But many Christians also blame rising Islamic extremism and anti-Christian sentiment and accuse the government of always pointing the finger at lone renegades or mentally ill people to avoid addressing sectarian problems and possibly angering Muslims.

As we see in this last excerpt, the reporters work to flesh out the complexity of the conflict and do so in conversational and vibrant language.

Reuters also had a good report, one that explained some of the technical details in a helpful way:

A statement posted on an Islamist website called on Muslims to “bomb churches during the Christmas holiday when churches are crowded.” It was not clear who was behind the statement that listed churches in Egypt and elsewhere, including Alexandria’s Church of the Two Saints that was targeted.

The Orthodox Coptic Christmas is on January 7.

Pope Benedict XVI condemned the widening campaign against Christians in his homily and the AP covered it as well. He said the lack of religious freedom is a threat to world security:

“In the face of the threatening tensions of the moment, especially in the face of discrimination, of abuse of power and religious intolerance that today particularly strikes Christians, I again direct a pressing invitation not to yield to discouragement and resignation,” he said. …

The Vatican is very worried that a steady exodus of minority Christians from Iraq will permanently reduce their numbers and discourage the wider community of Christians in the Middle East.

The article does a good job of relating the consistency of the Pope’s message as well as its significance. And for other in-depth coverage of the larger problem, you may be interested in this comprehensive report of violence against Christians throughout Muslim-dominant countries in Le Figaro, a conservative French paper. If you don’t read French, Google translate does a pretty good moving it into English here. This handy map shows where the state forbids the practice of Christianity (red) and where violence against Christians is endemic (orange).

I know that stateside (and elsewhere) the media are more focused on Islamophobia these days. But if Vatican reporter John Allen’s New Year prediction is true, there will be growing interest in and use of the term “Christianophobia” in the days to come. Let us know if you see any particularly good coverage of the plight of Christians in other countries.

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  • Julia

    Interesting that the French map does not show North and South America. That would indicate that nowhere in the Americas are Christians interdicted or constantly persecuted. that may explain why this is relatively low on the radar of US news outlets.

    I was impressed with the AP report, too.

  • Jerry

    I know that stateside (and elsewhere) the media are more focused on Islamophobia these days. But if Vatican reporter John Allen’s New Year prediction is true, there will be growing interest in and use of the term “Christianophobia” in the days to come.

    Kevin Eckstrom in the end of the decade Religion and Ethics Newsweekly show I mentioned in Sarah’s 2010 topic predicted that the Republicans in Congress would hold hearings on the danger presented by a tiny minority of American Muslims who turn radical (while no doubt ignoring the tiny minorities of other groups who do evil deeds). So I suspect we’ll see another year of political gnat straining while the global camels are ignored. And, to avoid vagueness, the camel in this case is the treatment of Christians around the world.

    But I do have one quibble with the French chart. It’s too Christian centered because India has seen inter-religion violence of all sorts for quite some time and China is noted for its anti-religious attitudes. So it would be better if the chart showed locations where anti-Christian laws and acts are particularly the issue rather than being part of a larger problem.

  • http://none Ted

    Look up ‘The Lavon Affair’, or ‘The USS Liberty’ for some incite on something not widely known – before you follow the accusations that Muslim’s are to blame.

  • Raj Rao

    Just a note – The Big Three are not the only religions with histories of intolerance and persecution. Additionally, atheism is also rife with such a history – Pol Pot for example.

  • Dave

    Julia @#1, you’d have to have a third color for still unconscionable constraints that fall short of episodic violence or state interdiction.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Of course what REALLY counts in looking at an AP dispatch is how it is used. Here in Boston both major dailies ran one story each about the massacre at the Church and both used only the AP story.
    The Boston Herald ran a very shortened version of the AP story at the bottom of its page 10. The tiny “headline” above the story read: “Christians, Cops Clash In Wake of Bomb.” One can easily presume from this “headline” that the story is about a bomb set off by Christians (And how many read beyond the headings on stories??)
    The Boston Globe ran a bit more of the AP story on its page 2. It’s “headline” was “Egyptian Christians Vent Anger Over Attack” (wouldn’t Massacre be far more appropriate than simple “attack”????) Our History books don’t call the much smaller carnage in Boston “The Boston Attack.” I wonder how many news outlets used the far more accurate and descriptive word “massacre” as opposed to a mere “attack” or some other softer word.
    In much smaller print a sub-heading had: “Church Bombing Kills 21 Attending Alexandria Mass.” But as one Christian commentator pointed out–the targets were clearly the innocent worshippers NOT the church building and the worshippers “collateral ” damage.
    But the Globe had more important stories for its front page and is the big reason that the Globe locally is considered as nothing but a leftist propaganda sheet by many. The front page headline story to the right above the fold was: “Hopes For Gay Rights Gains Shift to Courts.”

  • Dave G.

    any particularly good coverage of the plight of Christians in other countries.

    Any good coverage, or just any coverage?

  • Ryan

    Being a bit provocative but does this mean certain liberal Hollywood types and some editorial writers for the NYT blame Middle Eastern governments if a Christian and/or group commits some act of terrorism?

    If you buy into the argument that those who are often at the front of warning or manufacturing Islamophobia put forth, of America provoking or creating terrorists by it’s policies and behaviors; does this work both ways? Would Christians then be free in the eyes of these same people to be violent and commit acts of terror?

    Personally, I answer a resounding no, but that is just because I believe what my momma told me; two wrongs don’t make a right. Ohh… and that turn the other cheek thing that Jesus said…

  • kristy

    It’s so easy to take for granted the peace and ease with which we attended church in the United States.

    I am often humbled by the persecution that Christians in the Middle East and other parts of the world are able to bear. I have also learned a lot from Muslims and others who are willing to help protect minority Christians at personal risk to themselves.

    Keep them all in your prayers as they celebrate Christmas on January 6th and 7th.

  • John M

    Mollie, thanks for linking to the Le Figaro article, I enjoyed it. I did note that they used the expression “fondamentalisme musulman” a couple of times, which translates to “Muslim fundamentalism.” I don’t know the shades of meaning of the term “fundamentalism” in French, but it certainly doesn’t come packed chock full of the American Protestant fundamentalist/modernist controversy, and working from a base definition, “fundamentalism” seems like a pretty apt way to describe Wahabbism in particular.

    French capitalization isn’t something that was well-covered in my French education, and I noted that the Le Figaro article capitalized “États” (states, as in countries), but not “christianisme” “musulman” and “marxisme” (Christianity, Muslim and Marxism). I assume this is the French equivalent of the AP standard, and maybe it says something about the French worldview. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it. :)


  • Hector

    John M,

    French grammar never capitalizes the names of religions or ideologies (or, for that matter, nationalities: ‘francais’ is not capitalized, though ‘France’ is). Don’t ask me why….I’m not sure how much it says about comparative worldviews though.

  • Jerry

    There is some important history of Muslim-Christian relations that is highlighted in this CNN story about a gathering Pope Benedict will be holding:

    It would mark the 25th anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace that Pope John Paul II held there on October 26, 1986. The choice of Assisi, a town in Central Italy, as the venue is certainly not for its access to an airport: It is chosen as the home town of St. Francis, the beloved Christian saint whose generosity of spirit and constant striving for peace are exemplified in a remarkably amicable encounter he had with Egypt’s Sultan Malik al-Kamil in the midst of the Fifth Crusade in 1219.

    With Francis’ example beginning to inspire Christians in interreligious dialogue, it’s time to say that Sultan al-Kamil, too, can be a model.

  • Denis MacEoin

    No-one seems to get the most important feature of this story. From the beginning, Islam has been discriminatory against Jews and Christians, who are regarded as dhimmis, people whose lives and property are protected within the Islamic state, at the price of second-class status, a poll tax, and regular humiliation. (Islam shows zero tolerance for all other religions, whose followers may be killed.) In Iran today, the largest religious minority, the Baha’is, is severely persecuted, through hangings of leaders and the wholesale destruction of Baha’i shrines. Strictly speaking, the Egyptian authorities should protect Christian churches, but extremists take their cue from the Qur’an and Traditions and act in contradiction of shari’a law (which is itself contemptuous of Jews and Christians). Jews have been expelled from almost every Muslim country. No Jews may even enter Saudi Arabia, Jordan or many other countries. Muslims demand the right to proselytize, but ban Christian,, Baha’i or other missionaries from their own countries. All in all, Muslim treatment of minorities is an international disgrace, but politicians and even religious leaders remain silent or express mild dissatisfaction at the situation. It is time to be robust and to demand the implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the proper treatment of religions and freedom of belief.

  • Sam

    Hi Mollie,
    I Coptic and I am glad you touched on the matter. Coverage of the attack which left 24 dead in the first few minutes of the new year on Christians who just left the Church after the new years Mass in a lot of Main stream media’s is an insult for those who their bloods were shed for no other reason except that they are Christians.
    Please send me an email contact for you so that I can send you the links to people who can tell you first hand stories from Alexandria – my beloved home city. I am Coptic Canadian who still have the map of Alexandria engraved in my heart for ever.

  • StewartIII

    NewsBusters: USA Today Religion Blogger Suggests Equivalence Between Oklahoma Anti-Sharia Law and Persecution of Christians Overseas

  • Joel

    I had a hard time with the constant references to a “midnight Mass” in the coverage, but even worse was the cutline on the Getty pic that my paper used with the AP story. The cutline started off “Egyptian Christian coptics…” Yes, that was in lower case.


  • C. Wingate

    Just before this I came across Jeffery Goldberg in The Atlantic decrying the paucity of coverage.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Joel makes a very good journalistic point about the “Coptic Mass.”
    I am not conversant with Coptic Orthodox terminology, but most Eastern Churches refer to the Divine Liturgy, not Mass.
    T.Matt where are you???

  • tmatt


    It would be the Divine Liturgy.

    This raises another question: Is there an Eastern Rite Catholic option for Copts? Loyal to Rome?

  • Joel

    Terry, there is a Coptic Rite in the Catholic Church. I wonder how well known that is among Egyptian Muslims, and whether the political influence of Pope Benedict affects the situation of Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt. Do Muslims blame the Copts when Benedict does something they don’t like?

  • Passing By

    There is a Coptic Catholic Church . The main body of Coptic Christianity is non-Calcedonian, “Oriental Orthodox”, of course, which I suppose raises the question as to whether an Eastern Orthodox Coptic Church exists in communion with Constantinople. There is also The Coptic Catholic Church in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

  • Mollie

    R: Mass — I noticed that some Coptic sites used the terms Holy Liturgy and Mass interchangeably.

  • John M

    @Julia, all the way back to the first comment, the Le Figaro article points out that Cuba makes a number of “worst offender” lists, but for some reason isn’t on the map. Voice of the Martyrs also focuses strongly on the FARC-controlled areas of Colombia and to a lesser extent on Chiapas state in Mexico, where believers are persecuted, but the Le Figaro article didn’t mention either that I recall.

    -John M.

  • Passing By

    Indeed there is a Calcedonian, i.e. Eastern Orthodox, Church of Alexandria.

    Google and ye shall find
    Knock and the links shall be opened.

  • Julia

    This raises another question: Is there an Eastern Rite Catholic option for Copts? Loyal to Rome?

    Just a note of clarification.

    As Passing By noted, there is a Coptic Church in union with the Pope, although most Copts are Oriental Orthodox. The Catholic Coptic Church uses the Coptic Rite instead of one of the Western/Latin Rites.

    The Catholic Coptic Church isn’t an option like what’s going on with the Anglicans. The Copts have their very own Church in union with the Pope. The converting Anglicans are being granted the use of a modified form of one of their Anglican liturgies, but the Ordinariate will not be a sui generis church like the Catholic Copts.