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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