St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church, the site of this past Sunday’s bombing targeting Egypt’s Copts, had always been unique. Built in 1911 on the burial ground of Boutros Ghali Pasha, the Coptic Prime Minister assassinated a year earlier at the hands of a fanatic, the church captures the sorrows and dreams of the time. The Boutros Ghali family had always had a complicated relationship to its Coptic identity (its fortunes both tied to and limited by it), and the church the family built was a reflection. Rejecting the Coptic architectural style, Al Boutrosiya (Peter’s) as the church became known, was modeled on the European basilica style, built by Khedive Abbas Helmi II Italian architect Antonio Lasciac, and decorated by fellow Venetian painter Primo Panciroli and mosaic artist Angelo Gianuzzi. For five years the painters worked to produce the magnificent interior. A building to honor a family that modernity had allowed to rise to power, clouded with loss. A place of worship for a people to whom modernity had bought emancipation from dhimmitude as well as renewed threats.
But if the building itself was not Coptic, the land spoke of their historical suffering and modern revival. The Fatimid conqueror of Egypt constructed a new city in 969, Cairo, to house their Caliphate. An old monastery by the name of the Monastery of Bones, for the bones of saints it contained, stood in the way of the construction of a grand palace. A solution was found whereby the bones were transferred to a barren area given to Copts. It became known as the Monastery of the Trench, and Copts used it as a burial ground. Ten churches were built on that ground in the following centuries—all destroyed during the Mamluk era. New ones would be built later. Destruction and rebuilding, loss and endurance—the twin faces of Coptic Christianity.
The growth of the city would change the area. The burial ground was transferred in the 1930s, and the government wanted to confiscate the now-prized land. State and Church fought a fierce legal battle until the Church’s ownership was recognized in 1943. By that time, the revival of the Coptic Church was underway. The land would soon host the Higher Institute for Coptic Studies, an outstanding educational institution that helped preserve the Coptic language, music and iconography. It would later be joined by the Coptic Theological Seminary. In 1968 a magnificent new Cathedral, St. Mark’s, was built at the center. Some of the bones of St. Mark the Evangelist, stolen by Venetian merchants in 828, were returned that year from the Vatican, followed nine years later by those of St. Athanasius. The disciple of Christ who had brought Christianity to Egypt and shed his blood on its soil, and the Coptic Pope who had stood against the world defending the faith: the two pillars of the Coptic Church.
In the shadow of St. Mark’s Cathedral, St. Peter’s Church grew smaller. Time has not been kind to the area. Once an upper class neighborhood, El Abbassia had quickly declined under the rule of Egypt’s generals. The Church was still managed by the Boutros Ghali family, with his grandson, UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali, being the most recent family member buried beneath it, but the worshipers were poorer. In 2004 demonstrations erupted in the Cathedral over a Coptic priest’s wife’s disappearance. Soldiers climbed St. Peter’s walls, breaking bricks off the roof to throw onto the angry Copts. In April 2013, the Cathedral was once again attacked, with police officers joining the mob in throwing tear gas and rocks on the ancient building.
Sunday’s attack is neither the first nor the last that the Coptic Church will endure. A Church that proudly calls itself the Church of the Martyrs expects no less. Icons of martyrs of old decorate its walls, with their names proudly carried by the flock. Yesterday’s bombing victims included Verena and Marina; martyrs and daughters of martyrs. In the third century, Tertullian declared, “If the martyrs of the whole world were put on one arm of the balance and the martyrs of Egypt on the other, the balance would tilt in favor of the Egyptians.”
Many Copts, frightened by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power and the free rein given to Islamists to incite and attack them, placed their hopes in an army general, Abdel Fattah El Sisi. For the past three years he has failed them, with Copts enduring continued mob attacks and the state forcing them into reconciliation sessions that appease their attackers. But if President Sisi has failed to protect them, it is the Islamists who have targeted them. While the jihadists conduct the bombings, the Muslim Brotherhood’s statement on the attack not only claims it as a false flag operation but goes further in implying the Church’s complicity. The West offers little comfort. The State Department’s statement downplayed the attack by falsely claiming it took place outside the church and not within its walls.
The bombing was especially gruesome. Sunday marked the celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, an official holiday in Egypt, and churches were crowded with worshipers. The terrorists probably wanted to target the cathedral itself, but chose St. Peter’s, with its separate entrance on the street, to avoid security. The bomb was left in the women’s section of the church, and 23 of the 25 victims were women. In February 2015, twenty Coptic men were murdered by the Islamic State on the shores of Libya. Yesterday, their mothers and sisters joined them.