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In Memoriam: A Coptic Eucharist

[Bloodstained belongings of those killed at chapel of the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral of Abbasiya on 11 December 2016. Photo by Jonathan Rashad] [Bloodstained belongings of those killed at chapel of the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral of Abbasiya on 11 December 2016. Photo by Jonathan Rashad]

The previous day, shortly after they had sipped the wine symbolic of the blood of Christ and in remembrance of the Holy Communion, an explosion tore through the church leaving the their blood in small puddles on the floor and splattered on the walls and pillars.

“The time will come, that whoever kills you will think that he does God’s service."

This sentence from the Gospel of John 16:2 was inscribed on a sign draped along the side of the Abbaseya Cathedral where the coffins of Sunday’s bombing victims streamed out to the sound of drums, cymbals, and trumpets. In this procession, wails and zaghareet (ululations) synchronized to eviscerate the line between the pain of funerary loss and the jubilation of a wedding zaffa. Barely standing, a teary-eyed father who lost his daughter alternates between consoling his wife and shaking her. “You shouldn’t scream! You should be happy! She is with the Lord!” She smiles for a moment before a mighty stream of tears cascades down her face. Her head drops onto his shoulder.

[A man taking a photo of the blood-smattered human remains, belongings, and church
paraphenalia shortly after the bombing. Photo by Jonathan Rashad]

Nowadays, the Copts seldom celebrate without mourning, and rarely mourn without celebration. Attacks against them, their livelihood, and their places of worship have increased exponentially since the 2011 revolution. Caught between a rock and a hard place, as an embattled religious minority at a time of increased intolerance, some observed the revolution with hopeful trepidation. Others feared the rise of political Islamist groups, which they expected would narrow an already tiny sliver of civic space for religious minorities. Few broke from the Coptic Church’s proscribed position and joined the ranks of the revolution. Typically apolitical and disengaged from public life, Copts have, for decades, been forced to succumb to the patronage (and protection) of a nexus between two patriarchies—that of the state and the Church. Each relies on the other for deliverance. The state is supposed to deliver the Church, and by extension Copts, protection from the Muslim majority in general and Islamists specifically. The Church delivers the state its congregants’ absolute loyalty, complacency, and silence.

At a critical juncture when the state’s security apparatus acted to remove the Muslim Brotherhood from power, they counted and got the Church’s absolute and unequivocal support. Copts, many of whom once saw the revolution and the change it promised as an opportunity for change in their predicament, were forced to deliver the Church’s promise of loyalty, complacency, and silence or be shunned by the church, the state, their fellow Copts, and large segments of society post-June 30. But in doing so, they essentially became the human shields for a regime facing an increasingly radicalized opposition determined to uproot and punish all those who victimized it. And while Copts and the Church have rarely become embroiled in the direct conflict against Islamists, with every action by the security state against these groups and individuals coupled with Papal endorsement, Copts find themselves the target of escalated ire and reprisal from radical groups. Since Copts are seen—by the state and society at large—as accepting of the Pope’s reverence and his political posture, the Church’s unapologetically pro-regime stance since July 2013 has rendered this minority into sacrificial lambs on the altar of Egyptian politics. They have since been seen as legitimate targets of attacks against the coup and the government that followed it. With all its proverbial eggs squarely in the basket of the regime, and with Coptic ranks effectively silenced (even on such matters as the Maspero massacre of 9 October 2011), Egypt’s Christian minority is now giving up the lives of its community to “preserve national unity” and to fend off its detractors.

[Human remains, marble, concrete, cement, and blood mix with personal belongings
on the floor of the chapel after the explosion. Photo by Jonathan Rashad.]

Moments after the attack, with people gathering outside the cathedral, crowds of young people erupted in chants protesting against the Ministry of Interior whose responsibility it is to protect churches, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, and most importantly President Sisi himself.

“So long as the price of Egyptian blood is cheap, down, down with any president,” blurted a young man as he shook to balance himself over those gathered.

They repeated after him: “So long as the price of Egyptian blood is cheap, down, down with any president.” 

[Coptic Egyptian protesters outside the cathedral in the presence of the police. Photo by Jonathan Rashad]

For several hours they chanted against orthodoxies, against states, against politeness, against the military, against legal and judicial institutions, and against the clergy. Against a humanity they feel wronged them. They did so without a permit to protest, without approval from the church, and without regard for repercussions. In time, both prominent clergy and senior security forces arrived to defuse and tranquilize them rhetorically and forcibly. Another moment of revisionism, of revolutionary promise, and of honesty in the face of death, was buried at the hands of the usual suspects—the state and the church.

So much is hinged on the dead bodies from the Botroseyya Church attack for so many actors and institutions. It is with the mangled, dismembered, and severed corporeal appendages of Copts strewn on the church floor that a modern Egyptian republic is supposedly to be built. It is these bodies that are supposedly to quench the collective agony of families who lost loved ones defending a deposed president in Rabaa and Nahda Squares. It is these bodies that are supposed to convince any detractors that Egypt needs military might in its executive office for many more years to come. It is these bodies that are supposedly to anoint and confirm the sacrifice of Copts in the name of national stability. It is these bodies that are supposedly to convince a zealous myopic Pope that he is on the right track. It is these bodies that supposedly drive a hapless and miserable community deeper into the suffocating embrace of the state for protection. It is these bodies that will supposedly bring fearful Coptic diasporas closer to the discourse of fascist nationalism and Islamophobia in the West. It is these bodies that will effectively bury any hope of a national reconciliation in Egypt.

[The extent of the destruction inside the chapel following the explosion. Photo by Jonathan Rashad]

However, when Sisi came to the cathedral for a state-sanctioned funeral where families of the bereaved were forced to show ID and an invitation before being admitted and with many shut out completely, the president declared clearly and without hesitation that the police should not be blamed for negligence in the attack. This is a clear severance of the social contract between the Copts and the state. The state, forever suggesting it is the Copts’ only guardian, has foregone this responsibility. Sisi, the supposed messianic saviour of Egypt and its Christians, had sidestepped deliverance and absolved his all-too-revered security forces of any wrongdoing. Instead, lip service to national unity was marshalled for the umpteenth time as if it were an assurance such attacks won’t happen again.

For those whose bodies were laid to rest, they joined their brethren from Maspero, the Two Saints Church, Nagah Hammadi, Dyroot, El-Koshh, etc, etc. Forgotten and unaccounted for. Their bodies and blood are the state and church’s communal Eucharist—a fellowship of convenience and an ablution of their sins, albeit without confession. 

It is time to accept that (despite sometimes opposite circumstances and different actors), like those who lost their lives six kilometers away in Rabaa El-Adaweya or one thousand kilometers afield in Aleppo, their deaths were, unfortunately, in vain.

“The time [has] come, that whoever kills you thinks that he does God’s service." 

[A young man sits silently alone with his thoughts in front of a blood-stained wall inside
the cathedral following the explosion. Photo by Jonathan Rashad]




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