And this is the holiest week on the Christian calendar. And yet, some Christians will not be celebrating. Egypt’s Coptic Christians were the victims of horrific attacks this week. Suicide bombings at churches in two cities on Palm Sunday killed nearly 50 people and caused Egypt’s president to declare a state of emergency. Those churches will not hold celebrations after tomorrow night’s Easter services.
Coptic Christians have been around since the dawn of Christianity. Almost all of them live in Egypt. They are a minority in a Muslim dominated country. They have often been persecuted. And now they seem to be a special target of Islamic State militants.
The general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, Bishop Angaelos, spoke with us from London. He was born in Egypt and is in constant contact with the Coptic community there.
Well, let me start by saying I am so sorry about what your community in Egypt has been through. This has been quite a tragic week.
ANBA ANGAELOS: It has been. It’s – I’ve said in past weeks in response to other things that have happened that at times like this we see the very worst and very best of humanity because we see one person or a group of people wanting to cause pain and terror while there are so many acts of graciousness and kindness that happened. But we’re very blessed to have so many people praying for us.
GREENE: What do you tell people in Egypt who are concerned about the state of emergency that the president has declared, suggesting that maybe this is giving the government too much power?
ANGAELOS: What I say to them is please don’t confuse issues. We’re still burying our dead and we’re still ministering to their families, and not to turn this into a political argument. My biggest concern during these days is that there is an immediate desire to politicize everything that happens. And so Christians really just become collateral damage whereas we start speaking about states of emergency and security.
GREENE: So the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for these bombings. Do you believe that they were behind this?
ANGAELOS: The political grandstanding and point scoring that comes from people declaring that they have done this or that doesn’t really impress me, neither does it concern me. I think the important thing is to realize that we’ve – keep the focus on those who have lost their lives and those who continue to be victims, rather than giving the focus to those who want this kind of coverage.
GREENE: But, Bishop, if we listen to people who follow and study ISIS, that they say that their goal in Egypt might be to create religious strife and really divide and undermine the country. Are you seeing signs of that? Are you worried about that?
ANGAELOS: I think that groups like this actually have a more sinister plan. I think what we’re seeing now is a plan to actually eradicate Christians. I think there is an immense intolerance by these people and their followers felt towards Christians in Egypt. They feel that they have no place or indeed if they’re going to be there, they should live as a protected community, not as equal citizens.
GREENE: If that is indeed true, if the elimination of – or at least the isolation of your community is the goal, what is that like day to day for Coptic Christians in Egypt?
ANGAELOS: It’s interesting that these attacks happened in full churches. We had the bombing of St. Peter’s Church in Cairo only a few months ago. And yet, Christians still keep going to church, still keep publicly proclaiming and living their faith. They’re not dissuaded. All that happens is they walk out of their homes every day feeling vulnerable and feeling that they are a target.
GREENE: Now, as we were wrapping up our chat, I asked Bishop Angaelos if he had anything he wanted to add and he did. He offered this thought.
ANGAELOS: One of the very clear defining factors of Christians in Egypt over the past years as we’ve seen them suffer these ongoing attacks is their spirit of forgiveness and their spirit of resilience. And I think that in itself speaks volumes.
GREENE: Do you forgive the suicide bombers who carried out these attacks?
ANGAELOS: Absolutely. Absolutely. I don’t have to forgive the act because the act was vicious and it was evil. But we’re all humans. We’re all under the brokenness of sin. And we all have a possibility to repent. We are very happy to continue loving and forgiving and hoping. And I think this is the only way to break a really sinister spiral of violence that has swept across the Middle East.
GREENE: Bishop Angaelos, thank you so much for your time.
ANGAELOS: Thank you. And every blessing and good Easter to all your listeners.