Note: This is an unreleased article about the terrorist attacks on Palm Sunday 2017 in Egypt. It was meant for newspapers.
Sunday, April 9th 2017. Palm Sunday. A bomb explodes in Mar Guirguis (Saint-George in Arabic) church in Tanta, a few kilometers away from Cairo, while another terrorist blows himself up as two police officers, a male and a female, deny him entry into Saint-Mark’s Coptic Cathedral in Alexandria. Same old story, business as usual, but what went on social media was a bit different. Why are these bombings somewhat usual and what is different? What are the terrorists’ motivations?
Since 2010, Islamic terrorists bomb churches during the three biggest Christian feasts in Egypt: Christmas, Palm Sunday, and the biggest one of all, Easter. Only major incidents are reported because the minor ones have become so common that they have become routine. The reasons for attacking Saint-Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria are quite clear.
According to legend and Egyptian tradition, Saint Mark the Evangelist brought Christianity to Egypt through the city of Alexandria. Because of his role in Coptic (native Egyptian) Christianity, he is the patron saint of Alexandria and all of Egypt. Legend has it that Saint Mark’s Coptic Cathedral was built on the very site of the first church of Egypt. The cathedral has been destroyed and rebuilt a few times throughout Egyptian history during foreign invasions. It is also the historic seat of the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. This year, the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch, Tawadros II (“Theodore” in Arabic), celebrated the Palm Sunday mass with the Cathedral’s congregation. The terrorist blew himself up moments after the Patriarch had left the Cathedral. This attack was not only against Egypt’s Christians but also against Egyptian Christianity’s most powerful symbols.
As for Saint-George’s church in Tanta, in the Nile Delta, the Palm Sunday service was being filmed for live television. As the deacons’ choir was singing in Greek “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord/Hosana to the king of Israel/Hosana to the son of David/Hosana on highest”, the bomb exploded and the broadcast was interrupted. Perhaps the bomber was eager to have his deed broadcasted on live TV?
The attacks also have a political purpose. Many English-language and Arabic newspapers in Egypt announced Pope Francis’s visit to Egypt in late April, news that Egyptians are very excited about. Pope Francis plans to visit Tawadros II, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and the Sheikh of Al-Azhar mosque and university, an authority in Islam, Ahmed Al-Tayyeb. The objective of this visit is to improve relations between Egypt and the Vatican as well as Christian-Muslim relations. These objectives run counter to Salafist teachings, the teachings that inspire Islamic terrorism.
ISIL’s chapter based in the Sinai Peninsula claims responsibility for the attack but Egyptians don’t care. Egyptians flooded social media platforms with messages of compassion towards Christians, condolences for those who were killed, tributes to the male and female police officers who were killed, memes mocking Salafist thinking, and messages expressing anger. These angry messages expressed ideas such as “Terrorist attacks against churches and Christians are attacks against all Egyptians”. As one of the memes stated, this is not a conflict between Christians and Muslims but a conflict between Egypt and terrorists.
Terrorists attack Christians on holidays to spoil their fun but now, Islamic terrorists are ruining it for all Egyptians regardless of creed. Egypt’s tourism industry was making a comeback but the recent attacks will surely slow it down again. Egypt needs foreign capital, which comes mainly from foreign investments and tourism, to put an end to Egypt’s economic crisis. Elderly Egyptians who have lived before the 1950s and younger ones who have seen videos of their grandparent’s youth long for these days when Egypt was rich, and Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together as one people. Indeed, Islamic terrorists are ruining it for all Egyptians; their stay in Egypt is long overdue.