Canada’s Coptic Christian community reels from twin church bombings in Egypt
Father John Boutros’s family could see the explosion in their rearview mirror as they drove home from Palm Sunday service at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in the coastal city of Alexandria, Egypt.
It was the second of two bombings that ripped through Egypt as worshippers marked the day Christians believe Jesus entered Jerusalem, leaving at least 44 dead and injuring another 100 others, according to officials. The first hit Saint George church in the city of Tanta in the Holy Week leading up to Easter and ahead of a visit by Pope Francis.
A world away at the St. Moses and St. Katherine Coptic Church in Toronto, news of the attack — for which ISIS claimed responsibility — was trickling in, with worshippers frantically trying to find out of any of their family or friends were affected.
“Everyone was asking everyone else, ‘Do you know anybody that was affected by the bombings? Do you have any family that was affected by the blasts?'” Boutros said.
‘This is personal’
It’s a reality all too familiar for the community. In December a bombing at at Egypt’s main Coptic Christian cathedral claimed 25 lives. In that bombing, a widowed mother who was friends with Boutros’s family lost almost all of her immediate family, including two young women.
“This is not just news for us,” Boutros said, recalling the tragedy. “This is personal.”
Those young women were the cousins of the wife of Dr. Sherif Emil, a member of Montreal’s Coptic community.
For Emil, news of Sunday’s attack, while tragic, was no shock.
“It’s no surprise that this happened today to intimidate people from both participating and exercising their faith and shedding gloom on what’s the happiest day of the year for millions of people there,” Emil said.
Boutros, who was born in Egypt and has lived most of his life in Canada, says the tragedy brings a troubling start to Holy Week.
The attack’s timing, ahead of what Christians hold to be the final week of Jesus’s life and ministry, is something Boutros says is especially poignant.
The Palm Sunday service, he said, traditionally ends with a funeral prayer — something that took on new meaning on a day when so many were killed while worshipping.
“It’s joy interspersed with sadness, knowing that these people were being true to their faith and they’re in a better place. We believe that they are in the kingdom of heaven with God, in paradise.”
‘God can make something good out of anything’
In Toronto, Boutros said, worshippers who would normally write their prayers on pieces of paper to send up to the altar, were mentioning the terror attacks not only in Egypt, but also in Syria, Somalia and elsewhere in the world.
“In a certain sense, there is some good that comes out of this,” Boutros said. “God can make something good out of anything — in a certain way it couldn’t have happened at a worse time and it couldn’t have happened at a better time.”
That feeling was echoed in the official statement from the patriarch in Egypt, which bid a farewell to what it called “martyrs,” celebrating the life of Jesus believed to have promised “love and peace to all human beings.”
“But now, with all the Church, they are offering their prayers to the Just Judge who sees, hears and writes a book of remembrance,” the statement said.
At Boutros’ church, in Toronto’s Bloor and Bathurst streets area, the usual white vestments have been put away. Black flags of mourning will be hung in place of the white ones normally used to declare Jesus’s resurrection.
“All of our churches have reverted to solemn tunes and all of our festive apparel that we use for Palm Sunday has been put away and will only come back out again for Easter time,” he said.
“If I wear any vestments at all, I’ll wear black or deep dark blue ones.”
‘Send peace into their hearts’
And for other Christians marking Palm Sunday in Toronto, Egypt was on the minds of many.
“It’s very sad,” said Alisha Arif at an event at Queen’s Park. “They should have the right to praise the Lord. Everyone should have their own freedom.”
In a statement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned Sunday’s attacks, calling on the international community to “stand united in our efforts to stop those responsible and to fight against hate by embracing values of diversity, inclusion and peace.”
Pastor Praskah Masih, who was also at Queen’s Park, shared the sentiment of the attack’s timing.
“It happened on a very special day,” he said, adding that the message to those behind the attacks is precisely the one Jesus is believed to have brought.
“It is the same as was from the cross, because Jesus said to those who persecuted him and crucified him, ‘Father, forgive them because they know not what they are doing,’ so that’s the same message we want to say to them… ‘Send peace into their hearts.'”