A bus carrying Coptic Christians in southern Egypt is seen after gunmen attacked it May 26. The Health Ministry reports at least 26 fatalities, with at least 25 more wounded. RNS/screenshot

Fear and anger haunt Christians in wake of mass Coptic slaughter in Egypt

  • May 26, 2017

Abouna Beshoi Yasa Annis has been talking to angry, frightened and despairing parishioners in his Catholic Coptic parish in Assiut, Egypt, ever since gunmen killed at least 28 pilgrims on a bus, two hours’ drive north of his town in the Christian heartland of Upper Egypt.

Another 25 were injured in the May 26 attack.

“My parishioners are very angry,” Beshoi told The Catholic Register. “They are in despair.”

Though the cars that cut off and surrounded the pilgrimage bus on its way to a monastery were from Libya, Beshoi has no doubt the attackers were Egyptian. State media in Egypt says Egyptian forces launched six raids in the Libyan town of Derna, looking for the perpetrators.

Beshoi’s parishioners immediately cancelled a May 29 trip for the women of his parish. All the parish’s summer plans for pilgrimages to local monasteries — an important and popular parish activity during summer holidays — are up in the air. Busloads of Christians on their way to remote locations are just too easy to target, said the former pastor of Toronto’s Holy Family Coptic Catholic parish.

“I can’t take responsibility,” Beshoi said.

Police have asked that Christians, who are almost half the Assiut region’s 390,000 people, notify them before taking any group trips. The police plan to supply two police cars to travel ahead and behind any approved convoy or busload of Christian pilgrims.

Beshoi wants nothing to do with the scheme.

“This means I say to the terrorists, ‘Come and kill us.’ It would be a big show,” he said.

Christians in Egypt "are getting to this idea that we could be a martyr at any moment," the spokesman for the nation's bishops told Catholic News Service.

The spokesman, Fr. Rafic Greiche, also lamented the number of children killed in an attack on a bus carrying Coptic Orthodox Christians to St. Samuel Monastery in southern Egypt.

They were killed by masked assailants. Beshoi has heard that before the shooting began the assailants were told to recite the Shahada, an Islamic declaration of faith that begins, “There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.” The Christians refused, Beshoi said.

"It is too early to say who is behind it, but certainly terrorists, and the security forces are now scanning the area" to find the culprits, Tarek Attia, Interior Ministry official, told Sky News Arabia, an Arabic-language television station.

He said three cars carrying the masked gunmen had attacked the bus at roughly 10:30 a.m. in the southern governorate of Minya, a traditional stronghold of Egypt's Christian community, which accounts for about 10 per cent of the country's mostly Sunni Muslim population.

At the Vatican, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, sent a message to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, expressing Pope Francis' prayers and solidarity after the "barbaric attack."

egypt attack webThis bus carrying Coptic Christians to a monastery was attacked May 26 in Minya, Egypt. The Health Ministry reports at least 26 fatalities, with at least 25 more wounded. (CNS photo/Mohamed And El Ghany, Reuters)

"Mindful in a particular way of those children who have lost their lives, His Holiness commends the souls of the deceased to the mercy of the Almighty. He assures their grieving families and all who have been injured of his ardent prayers, and he pledges his continued intercession for peace and reconciliation throughout the nation," the telegram said.

The attack marked the latest in a series of deadly attacks on Coptic Christians, whose church was founded by St. Mark the Apostle in the first century, and whose community represents the largest of the Middle East's Christian minorities.

On April 9, two suicide bombers attacked St. George's Cathedral in Egypt's northern city of Tanta and St. Mark's Cathedral in the coastal city of Alexandria. Those attacks killed and maimed dozens in what was the deadliest attack against Christians in Egypt's recent history. A nationwide state of emergency has been in place since.

In a widely publicized visit to Egypt soon after the April attacks, Pope Francis addressed the terrorist violence carried out in the name of a fundamentalist reading of Islam. Pope Francis frequently has said there are more Christians being martyred today than during the persecutions of the Church in the early centuries of Christianity. And, using the term "ecumenism of blood," he has noted how Christians divided into churches and denominations are united in mourning for their members killed not because they are Orthodox or Catholic, but simply because they are Christian.

The Pope paid tribute to the Coptic Orthodox Church's modern martyrs, praying before a memorial in Cairo marking the place where 29 people were killed and 31 wounded in December by a suicide bomber. He told Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, "Your sufferings are also our sufferings."

After the May 26 attack, the Coptic Orthodox Church released a statement saying, "We extend our condolences to all the affected families and are suffering with the entire country due to this evil and violence."

"We hope for the necessary procedures to prevent these kinds of attacks, which degrade the image of Egypt and cause so much suffering to Egyptians," the statement said.

Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak of Alexandria sent condolences to Pope Tawardros and "all families of all the martyrs," reported the Egyptian paper, Al Masry al Youm.

Ashraf Sultan, Egyptian parliament spokesman, told Sky News Arabia, "This is an attack on the entire society and affects us all."

gypt's top authority on Islam, Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar University, said that "such attacks can never satisfy a Muslim or a Christian."

An Interior Ministry statement said unknown assailants driving three four-wheel-drive vehicles had attacked by "randomly shooting" the bus carrying the Copts.

Local media showed grainy images of bloody bodies strewn on sandy ground, indicating many of the slain had fled the bus trying to escape the assailants' bullets.

Later, the media showed images of the wounded being taken to hospitals and reported that el-Sissi was calling for an emergency security meeting to address the attack. El-Sissi had instructed authorities to take all necessary measures to attend to the injured and arrest the assailants, the local media reported.

Asked about government assurances that security in the country would be tightened, Father Greiche told CNS: "It is now time for action, not just words."

(With files from Catholic News Service)

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