It was innocence, tradition and a firm hope that prompted my cousin Irene to take her pre-school age daughter to the 2010 New Year's Eve mass at All Saints Orthodox Church in Alexandria, Egypt. All she wanted was to share the last few hours of 2010 amidst the familiar sights, smells and sounds of the faces of her church family in human flesh or in iconized paint, the wafting incense of prayers sewing up another year and the ancient Coptic chants ringing across limestone walls and ornate carved wood.
What she didn’t expect, as they walked out hand in hand a few minutes after midnight, was to be showered with shattered stained windows and the offending sounds, smells and sights of a deafening blast, joined with screams of horror, smoke mixed with burnt flesh and scattered body parts of people she knew, her church family. Within moments, 22 people were dead and 80 injured.
This is how my country and my family started 2011, along with the families of the other 1,000 worshipers gathered for prayer that night in the large Coptic church in Alexandria, a city known for its long history of tolerance and its cosmopolitan culture.
Tension has filled the country, and as a Christian minority all too familiar with how similar incidents have affected our brothers and sisters in neighboring countries, many feel the tension of whether to go or to stay. Over so many decades, we’ve watched as beleaguered believers abandoned Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. And we can’t help but wonder if Egypt isn’t next on this agenda. But that fear must be held in tension with the hope of a much longer and stronger chain. Surely we can live together, as we’ve already done for 14 centuries, human with human. This has been our way, and must be, in this part of God’s world. When all others give up, the church alone can remain, as a witness to Christ’s justice, peace and grace.
Six days after the bombing, Irene went back to her church home, with her family for Christmas Eve, not to celebrate the mass, but to mourn along with the whole Egyptian Christian community in their various Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic churches. Though it was a feast day, she anticipated the wave of black suits and dresses instead of the new and colorful ones typical of Christmas. She heard the sounds of wounded prayers silencing the usual jubilant carols. And she smelt the burning wax of hundreds of candles on behalf of all those who had died before her very eyes, if for no other reason than their faith.
But she didn’t anticipate this: to see the tens of Muslim neighbors standing outside the church as human shields; or to hear the news that the blood bank of the hospital where the injured are housed was full to capacity, and had to turn donors (Christian and Muslim) away; or to smell the fresh flowers sent by people whose hearts break for our nation, adding the only color, and hope, to this dismal Christmas.
So we ask you to join us. Pray for Egypt, our country and government. Pray also for the Christian community there (12% of the 80 million people), who would willingly die for the cross if necessary, though we’d rather witness through our lives than through our deaths.
We live with hope. Ours is a risen savior. He will bring peace. Let us pray.
Image courtesy of the Office of Social Justice.