Egypt today paid her last respects to those who fell victim to a terrorist blast in Boutrossiya church (church of St Peter and St Paul) in Abbassiya, Cairo, yesterday Sunday 11 December during Holy Mass. Some 27 lost their lives, mostly women and children. The blast occurred in the rear pews on the southern side of the church—Coptic churches are built so that the altar is on the east side of the church—where women and children usually sit.
It was thought that a 12kg bomb had been carried into the church in a bag on a baby stroller pushed by a woman who left it inside the church then departed; others said she left the bag on a rear pew and left. But investigations did not confirm either hypothesis.
Tears of pain and joy
Pope Tawadros II, who was on a pastoral visit to Greece and directly returned from Athens once he heard of the Boutrossiya blast, presided over the funeral service this morning. The coffins of the victims had been moved during the previous night to the church of the Holy Virgin and St Athanasius the Apostolic in the Cairo eastern district of Nasr City where an early morning Mass was held on Monday 12 December. 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, and 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. 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. 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; it was a 22-year-old suicide bomber named Mahmoud Shafiq Muhammad Mustafa who wore an explosive belt and 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. There were also stories by eyewitnesses that the church guard Nabil Habib appeared to suspect a strange man who entered the church so hastened in after him but the explosion occurred directly, before he could reach him. Mr Habib died in the explosion.
Even though many Copts 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.
“They [the terroirsts] are out to defeat us,” the President said, “but no, they will never break us.”
Pope Tawadros said the President’s leading of the military funeral for the martyrs gave much comfort, and that hard times only served to “make us stronger”.
12 December 2016