Another bombing in a Coptic Orthodox sanctuary in Egypt, with at least 25 dead and that stunning number is expected to rise.
People, please allow me to speak as an Orthodox Christian for a moment. During recent years, it has been hard not to dwell on the hellish stories coming out of Iraq and Syria, with the Islamic State crushing Christians, Yazidis, traditional Muslims and members of other religious minorities. Ancient monasteries and churches, with irreplaceable libraries and works of sacred art, have vanished from the face of the earth.
It has been easy to overlook the horrors that have continued to unfold in Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere. In my own daily prayers, I have continued to pray for those dying in these lands, as well as in the ISIS zone. Quite frankly, it is easy to slide into despair about all of this.
The mainstream press coverage of this attack has been very straightforward and has -- appropriately so -- shown that Coptic believers, once again, are caught in a clash between two Islamic factions inside the tense religious and political culture of Egypt. The only confusion in the coverage concerns some basic and crucial facts, as in the specific location of the attack and why the vast majority of the dead were women and children.
So which church was bombed? Let's start with The New York Times, which has the actual location of the attack wrong:
CAIRO -- A bomb ripped through a section reserved for women at Cairo’s main Coptic cathedral during Sunday morning Mass, killing at least 25 people and wounding 49, mostly women and children, Egyptian state media said.
The attack was the deadliest against Egypt’s Christian minority in years. Video from the blast site circulating on social media showed blood-smeared floors and shattered pews among the marble pillars at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the seat of Egypt’s Orthodox Christian Church, where the blast occurred in a chapel adjacent to the main building.
As security officials arrived to secure the site, angry churchgoers gathered outside and hurled insults, accusing them of negligence.
What group claimed responsibility? No one knows, but the Times report makes it clear that authorities have few doubts:
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, although the attack bore the hallmark of Islamist militants fighting President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who have previously targeted minority Christians over their perceived support for his government.
It was the second major attack in the Egyptian capital in three days, marking a jarring return to violence after months of relative calm.
Now, what is wrong with this basic information? The Orthodox would note that, while some refer to our primary liturgy as "Mass," it is more accurate to call the Eastern rite the "Divine Liturgy."
Why were women and children the focus on the attack? The story notes that the bomb was placed near a "section reserved for women," which is accurate. In Egypt and in many other Orthodox cultures (as is often the case in Islam and Judaism) men and women sit or stand in different parts of the sanctuary, with most young children staying with their mothers. The attacker would have known this, of course.
But this brings us to a point of confusion in the Times report. The story says the bomb was in the land's main Coptic sanctuary, St. Mark's Cathedral.
Actually, it appears that the bomber or bombers knew that the Orthodox would be gathered in a smaller church -- the Church of St. Peter and Paul -- elsewhere in the Coptic compound.
As CNN reported:
(CNN) Security fears swept across Cairo on Monday as police probed the deadly bomb blast that ripped through a Coptic church the day before.
The explosion Sunday morning -- in the city's Abbassiya district -- hit the small church of St. Peter and St. Paul attached to the St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, said the Coptic Church's official spokesperson, Rev. Paul Halim, according to the government-sponsored Al-Ahram news outlet. ...
Egyptian state news agency MENA reported, citing security sources, said a 12-kilogram TNT bomb caused the blast..
Does this small detail matter? Yes and no.
It doesn't change the basic tragedy -- other than the fact that the larger, more symbolic Cathedral sanctuary remains intact.
However, noting that the attack (a) focused on worship in a smaller church nearby and (b) that such a large bomb was placed in a location that would guarantee the deaths of women and children does offer crucial details about the motives of the attack itself.
To be blunt: The attack was not on a symbolic sanctuary, but on the people themselves. The bombers did not set out to destroy a symbolic building -- the nation's main Coptic cathedral, St. Mark's -- but to kill worshippers, specifically women and children.
For me, these facts make the attack even more horrifying and hellish. In some of the mainstream news reports you will note that mainstream Muslims were especially ashamed of the facts about the location of the bomb, near the area in which women and children would be praying.
One other fact that is in some stories, but not others: This attack coincided with a national holiday in Egypt marking the birth of Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
The Times report accurately notes that the political context of this attack is quite complex. Once again, Christians have been attacked by the enemies of a Muslim regime that has tried to keep radicalized forms of Islam under control, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood. Once again, a highly symbolic Christian community -- the largest Christian flock remaining in the ancient lands of the Middle East -- was the safer target. Once again, the key question is whether police in Egypt are willing to protect this minority group.
Egypt’s beleaguered Coptic minority, which makes up about one-tenth of the country’s roughly 90 million people, has been discriminated against for decades, and has come under violent attack since the uprising that toppled Mr. Mubarak.
The leadership of the Coptic Church, under Pope Tawadros II, has been a vocal supporter of Mr. Sisi, who came to power in 2013. But that support has also made Copts a target for elements of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Islamists attacked hundreds of Coptic churches and homes in 2013, in a backlash after the security forces killed hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators in central Cairo in August of that year.
The violence smacks of sectarian prejudice because Mr. Sisi’s support stems from Egypt’s Muslim majority. Tensions between Christians and Muslims are highest in Minya, the province in upper Egypt that saw the worst attacks on Copts in 2013.
Coptic officials in Minya have counted at least 37 attacks in the past three years, including episodes of houses set on fire and Copts being assaulted on the streets.
Will this happen again? You know it will happen again.
FIRST IMAGE: Coptic icon of St. Peter and St. Paul.