What Palm Sunday Means to Egypt’s Copts
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.