It was Sunday morning, and Holy Mass was being celebrated in churches all over Egypt. Al-Boutrossiya church (Church of St Peter and St Paul) in Abbassiya, Cairo, was no exception. As Mass proceeded that morning of 11 December at almost 10am, an explosion occurred in the rear southern side of the church where women and children usually sit. Coptic churches are built so that the altar is on the east side of the church.
Twenty-five individuals lost their lives, and 49 were injured. The shock and commotion led to an initial inaccuracy in the numbers announced, but the Health Ministry finalised the correct figures later. Most of the victims were female, since this is the side of the church they usually sit in. Ambulances quickly arrived; the injured were moved to hospitals and the dead taken away.
With the holy host bread and wine still on the altar, a quick call for help was made to the adjacent St Mark’s Cathedral. Two priests arrived and carried the holy sacraments to a small church, Anba Rweiss’s, attached to St Mark’s where they completed Mass and gave communion to those present.
No group or organisation claimed responsibility for the bombing till the evening of Tuesday 13 December when Daesh issued a statement in which it declared that Allah had given success to their brother Abu-Abdullah al-Masry who headed to the temple of the Crusaders in central Cairo and blew up his explosive belt; 80 of them [the Crusaders] fell down, either dead or injured. The statement promised that Daesh would go on hunting the Crusaders until all the world became of Islamic religion. Rumours spread like wildfire on social media claiming that an 8-12kg bomb placed in a bag was carried into the church by a woman and left on one of the rear pews. Other stories had it that a woman had the bomb in a bag which she carried on a baby stroller. But sources from the criminal laboratory team who were in the church carrying out investigations told Watani that it was too early to reach definite conclusions, and that such stories were not substantiated and carried no credibility.
Watani’s reporters on the site said that the blood of the victims was spattered all over the place, and that the church reeked with the stench of blood. The church—which was built in the early 1900s by the prominent Coptic Boutros-Ghali family, and the crypt of which acts as burial place for the family—incurred extensive damage. Part of the ceiling caved in, the glass of the windows was shattered, the iron-frame window nearest the explosion was wrenched out of its place and blown outside, the iconostasis and several icons were destroyed, as were the wooden pews.
Pope returns home
The attack immeasurably shocked and pained the Coptic community. A large number of Copts rushed to donate blood for the injured till Health Minister Ahmed Emad Eddin, who had been making a round of the hospitals to which the injured had been moved, announced at around 2pm that the hospitals had sufficient blood. Defence Minister Sidqy Sobhy had ordered that the injured could be checked into military hospitals for treatment and surgery.
Pope Tawadros II was in Athens on a pastoral visit to Greece. He was celebrating Holy Mass in Athens when he was told of the Boutrossiya church explosion; he proceeded with Mass to the end then directly contacted the Egyptian embassy to arrange for his speedy return home. Watani’s Victor Salama who was in Athens with the Pope says the patriarch was visibly pained and dismayed by the news.
The Pope arrived at Cairo Sunday evening. He declared he would preside over a collective funeral service for the victims the following day. It was decided that the funeral would be held at the church of the Holy Virgin and St Athanasius the Apostolic in the Cairo eastern district of Nasr City.
President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi had called the Pope in Athens to offer his condolences, and had proposed that a military funeral should be held for the victims. The State declared national mourning for three days. Prime Minister Sherif Ismail visited the injured in hospital. and together with Interior Minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar offered condolences to the Egyptian people and specifically to the Copts. They called upon the Egyptians to stand hand-in-hand to fight the terrorists.
Tears of pain and joy
On Monday 12 December, Egypt paid her last respects to the martyrs.
Pope Tawadros II presided over the funeral service. The coffins of the victims had been moved during the previous night to the church of the Holy Virgin and St Athanasius the Apostolic where an early morning Mass had been celebrated. The coffins were placed in rows in front of the sanctuary; each carried the name of the body inside.
At 10:30am Pope Tawadros arrived. He entered the church to the Golgotha melody chanted by the deacon choir; the Golgotha is a plaintive, poignant melody that goes back to ancient Egypt and which the Coptic Church uses to commemorate the burial of Christ on Good Friday and as a funerary hymn. The heads of all the Churches in Egypt attended the funeral service, as did representatives of Churches outside Egypt, officials, public figures, and Coptic bishops and priests. The church was decked in white lilies and carried banners with the names of the departed.
The families and friends of the victims packed the church and received the Pope with a paradoxical mix of bewailing the dead, crying “Lord, have mercy”, and ululating in jubilation that the dead had gone to Heaven; the Sunday explosion had occurred during Mass in which they had partaken.
The Pope was visibly distressed. His voice broke several times during prayer. He stood with bowed face, leaning on his staff and facing the coffins all through the service except for when he delivered the sermon. The service began with Thanksgiving Prayer and proceeded to reading the scripture and praying for everlasting life for the departed. Pope Tawadros then delivered his word.
He began by saying that the martyrs had lost their lives during the month of Kiahk which precedes Christmas and is a month of joy and praise. “We bid our loved ones farewell in the same spirit of praise,” he said, “because we believe there is no death for those who love God; they will be resurrected in joy to everlasting life.
“We term our Church ‘the Church of the Martyrs’,” Pope Tawadros said. “Since the first AD century, Copts have offered their lives as sacrifice for the love of Christ. Our martyrs, and the act of martyrdom in itself, bind us to Heaven and raise our hearts to those who are already there interceding on our behalf.
“Despite our deep pain at the loss of loved ones, we bid them farewell on the hope that we will some day all meet in Heaven.”
The Pope concluded his word with stressing that the pain and loss is not only the Church’s or the Copts’, but also Egypt’s in her entirety. He reminded the terrorists: that the hand of black terrorism will never escape divine retribution. He then thanked all who had offered condolences for the painful loss: President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Pope Francis, Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and Archbishop of Athens and all Greece Ieronymos II, as well as all the heads of Churches worldwide who had condoled the Coptic Church, as well as officials and public figures inside and outside Egypt.
When the funeral service came to an end, the coffins were taken out of the church to a funeral march played by the scout band of the church of the Holy Virgin and St Athanasius the Apostolic. They were each wrapped in the Egyptian flag and mounted onto ambulance vehicles that took them to the nearby Unknown Soldier Memorial site in Nasr City for a military funeral.
President Sisi arrived to lead the funeral procession with the Pope. The coffins were carried on the shoulders of Egyptian soldiers, and the procession started. Once it stopped, President Sisi gave a word in which he offered his heart-felt condolences to Egypt because, as he said, Copts were part and parcel of Egypt, and it was Egypt that was being targeted by the terrorists. He insisted that the hit came from frustrated [Islamist] terrorists who realised the Egyptian people had defeated them. “They [the terrorists] tried to defeat us; they waged battle against us, they crushed our economy, hit our tourist movement, destroyed 75 churches, and forced prices up; but they could not bring Egyptians down.” And the attacks against Copts, President Sisi said, “will not divide us; we are one”. He said Egypt was fighting terrorism in Sinai and on other fronts, and achieving significant success.
The President made an announcement, however, that had the effect of a bombshell. He said the intelligence authorities had discovered that the culprit behind the Boutrossiya blast was [not a woman with an explosive device as was believed] was a 22-year-old suicide bomber named Mahmoud Shafiq Muhammad Mustafa who detonated himself in the church. President Sisi said that national security personnel had spent the whole night assembling his body parts to recognise his identity. His accomplices, two other men and a woman, were caught and further investigation is ongoing.
Later in the day, West Cairo prosecution confirmed what President Sisi said, explaining that the head and two feet of an unknown body had been found, and that the suicide bomber was identified through the hairs on his feet. He was recognised as an Islamist from Fayoum, and his picture was posted online.
Even though many Egyptians posted opinions on social media that were sceptical of the ‘suicide bomber’ scenario, no one stopped to ask what evidence had there been to back the ‘woman who left a 12-kg bomb in the rear of the church and left’ hypothesis.
On CTV satellite channel, Fr Antonius of Boutrossiya and senior deacon Morqos Mukhtar said the suicide bomber had visited the church the eve of the bombing, Saturday 10 December, and asked for ‘books on Christianity’. The priest and deacon felt suspicious about him and his request so told him there were no books at the church that would answer his need and that he could perhaps find them at the neighbouring St Mark’s the following morning. He said he wished to have a look at the church, but they told him it was already closed after the Kiahk praises had concluded. He then asked when was the best time to visit the Cathedral the following day, and they unwittingly suggested 10am. They were stunned to recognise him as the suicide bomber whose picture was in the news on Monday.
There were also stories by eyewitnesses, and video footage from the CCTV cameras at the church, that the church guard Nabil Habib appeared to suspect a strange man who entered the church so hastened after him but the explosion occurred directly, before he could reach him. Mr Habib died in the explosion. The same testimony was given by a 15-year-old girl who was injured and was interviewed by TV host Amr Adeeb on E ON TV channel. She said she had seen a young man in black jacket and cap rush into the church, and murmured to her mother that he looked strange and fearful. The next moment, she said, everything went blank, and she awoke to find herself in a hospital bed.
Together we are strong
At the funeral, President Sisi said: “They [the terrorists] are out to defeat us. But no, they will never break us.”
Pope Tawadros said the President’s leading of the military funeral for the martyrs gave much comfort to the Copts, and that hard times only served to “make us stronger”.
Reporting by Victor Salama, Georgette Sadeq, Michael Victor, Hany Danial, Katrine Faragallah, Basma Nasser, Marina Barsoum, Mariam Rifaat, Magda Rifaat
14 December 2016