The Atlantic

What Palm Sunday Means to Egypt's Copts

Sam Tadros on the terror attacks on the Egyptian Coptic Church

Former Senior Fellow
An Egyptian raises a cross made of palm leaves, originally intended for Palm Sunday celebrations, as he is being lifted by others at the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in Alexandria, April 9, 2017. (MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images)
An Egyptian raises a cross made of palm leaves, originally intended for Palm Sunday celebrations, as he is being lifted by others at the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in Alexandria, April 9, 2017. (MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images)

O-sana va-sili too Esraeel

At Saint George Church, a Coptic church in Tanta, Egypt, the deacons were finishing the final vowels in Evlogimenos (the Hosanna to the King of Israel), when the bomb exploded, leaving 28 worshipers dead and many others wounded. Shortly afterwards, a suicide bomber, failing to enter Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, where the Coptic Pope was leading the liturgy, detonated his bomb outside the church, leaving 17 people dead. A joyful day, one where Coptic children compete to turn their palm fronds into the most beautiful of shapes, suddenly became the deadliest day of attacks on this ancient community.

The twin bombings were hardly the first attacks against Egypt’s Coptic Christians. Nor are they likely to be the last. In recent years, Copts, who constitute more than half of all Christians in the Middle East, have been setting the grisliest of records, with each new attack claiming more victims than the one before. The Islamic State has claimed credit for the recent bombings. Following its bombing in December of the Coptic Cathedral complex in Cairo, the group released a message promising more to come for the “worshipers of the cross,” the group’s name for the Copts. A week-long murder spree targeting Copts by ISIS in Northern Sinai in February nearly emptied the region of Christians. Bombing Coptic Churches just before Christmas and Easter, ISIS seemed to take particular delight in targeting Copts during their most joyful celebrations.

Blessed is the man You choose, and cause to approach You, that he may dwell in Your courts.
— Psalms 65:4

Palm Sunday is a day of contradictions in the Coptic calendar—a day of joy as the Lord enters Jerusalem, a day of preparation for a week of sorrows as the faithful follow Christ’s every step on the road to the cross. But the most extraordinary event occurs immediately after the liturgy. The deacons replace the red stoles on their tunics with darker ones, and the rite suddenly shifts from the joyful sha’aneen, (or, Hosanna), to a general funeral for all living Copts. The verses from Psalms 65 are followed by the Pauline Epistle from 1 Corinthians 15, which promises resurrection of the believers. As the Church fixes its gaze on the death of its savior, no funerals are held for Copts during Holy Week; the general funeral prayers on Palm Sunday are meant to bless all those who die.

Christianity was born in pain in Egypt, its message of hope bathed in blood. Fleeing persecution in Israel, the young Jesus found refuge in the country. Yet suffering and martyrdom would become the central features of the Church his disciples would found. Saint Mark the Evangelist, who introduced Christianity to Egypt, shed his blood on the streets of Alexandria, and countless Copts followed him as they clung to their faith in their redeemer in the face of endless persecution. That initial blow, struck by Roman Emperors, was the first of many. The names of rulers may have changed, from Roman and Byzantine emperors to Muslim caliphs and governors, discriminatory laws changed from the Muslim rules of Dhimmitude, to the exacting, oppressive laws of Egypt’s present-day rulers, but the nature of the Coptic plight has not.

Through it all, Copts clung to their church. As everything from employment opportunities to roster spots on soccer teams were closed to them, the church became more than a house of worship, providing health care, private education, even sports venues. A Coptic nation exists today—but it does not seek independence. Membership is based not on race, nor, after the loss of the Coptic tongue, on a distinct language or even purely on religion. Instead, Copts are bound by the unique history of a church, a history of suffering. Holy Week may be focused on the pain of Christ, but for the Copts, their pain is seen and felt through His. They have carried their redeemer’s cross on the way to Golgotha, just as they carry a tattooed cross on their arms.

Thok te ti-gom, nem pi-o-oo nem pi-esmo, nem pi-amahee sha eneh amen, Emmano-eel pen-nouti pen-oroo

This is perhaps the most beautiful of the Coptic hymns; the translation: “Thine is the power, the glory, the blessing, and the majesty, forever Amen. Emmanuel our God and our King.”

During Holy Week, as the Coptic Church’s congregation walks the Via Dolorosa (or, the Way of Suffering), weeping as lashes land on Christ’s back and his body is nailed to the cross, it reminds the faithful of His power and divinity. The cross was carried not in weakness, but in strength; it was not forced, but chosen. In His acceptance of pain, Copts see their own. Over the centuries, many non-believers have ridiculed them for their perceived weakness, wondering why they have not taken up arms or sought revenge.

But like its savior, the Coptic Church carries its cross with pride. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, as Tertullian, the second-century theologian, proclaimed centuries ago. The years have taken their toll: Christianity was largely wiped out of North Africa; the places where Saint Augustine once walked no longer remember his name. Only in Egypt did it survive, the Church of Alexandria, the founding church of Copts, shining alone through Christianity’s early centuries. In Egypt’s deserts, monasticism was born at the hands of Saint Antony the Great, and it was Coptic Popes, from Athanasius to Cyril, who shaped the Christian creed and faith for the whole world.

During the Easter liturgy, a beautiful hymn is chanted, remarkably one of the few that are always recited in Arabic:

Ya kol al sofoof al sama-eyeen, ratelo le-eelahena be naghamat el-tasbeeh, wabe-tahegoo ma'na al-yowma fareheen, be-keyamat El-Sayed El-Maseeh

This hymn translates to, “All you heavenly orders, Sing to our God with the melody of praise, Rejoice with us today with gladness, In the Resurrection of the Lord Christ.” Death on the cross is followed by resurrection.

Such is the story of the Copts. While their church faces tremendous challenges in Egypt, it is flourishing abroad. In 1970, there were two Coptic Churches in the United States. Today there are 250. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than half a million Africans have joined the church, which is untainted by the legacy of colonialism, and prides itself as an African Church. There is a future for the Copts.

And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day it came to pass, that all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt.
—Exodus 12:41

I woke up early on Palm Sunday to the news of the bombings in Egypt. I entered my daughters’ room, hugged and kissed them and thanked God that they were born in America. I called my parents in Cairo to check on them. A distant relative was praying in the Alexandria Cathedral and had just left the church as the suicide bomber detonated his vest. His car windows were destroyed, but he was unharmed.

As we made our way to our local Coptic church in Fairfax Virginia, I noticed a police car parked out front. My moment of alarm was short-lived. I reminded myself that the local police were there not because of a bomb threat, but to organize traffic as Copts flock to the church during Holy Week. If the Coptic Church is suffering in its homeland, in America it is struggling to cope with the wave of immigration that has brought over half a million of us here and will continue to bring more.

The service was a very painful one. There were no happy faces in church. The deacon could barely continue reading the Bible through his tears. The priest reminded us of the blessings we enjoy in America as we prayed for our brethren back in Egypt. My wife’s sister sent us a nice picture of her son, a deacon, at the Palm Sunday service in Cairo. I saw a picture of a similarly aged boy, also a deacon, who people on social media said was one of the victims. For the rest of the day, I could not shake the picture from my mind. On Facebook, a friend in Cairo shared how, during the liturgy, before hearing the news, she thought it was a blessing that her daughter hadn’t made it to church that day. In case there was a bomb, at least her daughter would live.

It may well be time for Copts to pack their bags, close their churches, and bid farewell to 2,000 years of Christianity in Egypt. Will the Copts follow the Jews, both ancient and modern, kicked out of Egypt at the hands of Gamal Abdel Nasser? Where would they go? Who would take them? These are depressing questions, ones that Coptic parents in Egypt are confronting. Leaving, it seems, is inevitable.