Egypt shows solidarity after church bombings

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

Prayers are recited over the coffins of the victims of the 'Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant' following an April 9th attack on St. Mark's Coptic Church in Alexandria. [Mina Magdi/Al-Mashareq]

Prayers are recited over the coffins of the victims of the 'Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant' following an April 9th attack on St. Mark's Coptic Church in Alexandria. [Mina Magdi/Al-Mashareq]

Egyptians of all religious affiliations have been demonstrating solidarity with the victims and families of the Palm Sunday attacks from the instant they occurred, Muslims and Christians from all walks of life told Al-Mashareq.

Terrorists do not differentiate between Muslims and Christians when committing their crimes, they said, as their goal is to stir sectarian strife and tear apart Egyptian society.

The first bombing, at St. George's Church in Tanta, killed 27 people, the Health Ministry said. The second struck outside St. Mark's Church in Alexandria, killing 17, after a suicide bomber was prevented from entering the building.

At least 70 others were wounded in the latest attacks on Egypt's Coptic community, both claimed by the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL).

Following the attacks, the Egyptian government announced three days of public mourning for the victims and their families.

When the state declares a period of mourning, tents are set up in all regions to receive people who have come to give their condolences, Archbishop Michael Bakhos of St. Mina’s Church in Giza told Al-Mashareq.

"The martyrs are considered Egypt’s martyrs," he said.

Egyptians have responded to the attacks with rage and condemnation, without regard to whether the victims are Christian or Muslim, he added.

Despite ISIL's attempts to stir sectarian strife , Bakhos said, "the Egyptian people have repeatedly confirmed the solidarity among them, and terrorist efforts to tear them apart have failed".

Survivors donate blood

When the explosion took place, Alexandria shop owner Abbas al-Shaker, 50, was a few buildings away from St. Mark’s Church.

He was waiting for the mass to end so he could meet Coptic friends of his and give them his holiday greetings, as he does every year, he told Al-Mashareq.

He sometimes goes into the church, he added, but this year he arrived too late.

The moment he heard the blast, he sensed that the church was the target, he said, in light of recent concerns about attacks on Christians, and went immediately towards it.

Dust and smoke were rising from the area, he said, and security personnel were rushing to the scene.

He could not get close enough to check on his friends because of the security cordon, so he headed instead to the hospital where medical emergency teams had been transporting the injured, al-Shaker said.

"Without even thinking, I went to the blood bank to donate blood, since I knew there would be an urgent need for all blood types in order to treat the wounded," he said.

While he was there, many young people, mostly Muslim, started arriving to do the same.

'All Egyptian martyrs'

The bond between Alexandria's Muslims and Christians is a unique one, al-Shaker said, noting that relations between the two groups have been good, and there is always solidarity between them in times of crisis or celebration.

"Those who died in the bombings are all Egyptian martyrs, regardless of their religious affiliation," said Al-Azhar University fatwa committee member Sheikh Abdul Zahir Shehata, who lectures at Al-Azhar's College of Sharia and Law.

"Despite the tension everyone felt during and after the bombings, the social and national solidarity was clear in most parts of Egypt," he told Al-Mashareq.

In both churches, Muslims and Christians rushed to rescue the wounded and try to save those who could be saved, he said.

Muslim and Christian youth took to the streets together in spontaneous protests denouncing terrorism, he said, "indicating that ISIL's plan to stir strife among Egyptians, and between Muslims and Copts in particular, has failed".

The aftermath of the Sunday attacks will inevitably involve increased efforts to raise security awareness and promote moderate religion, Shehata said.

This must be done by both Muslim and Christian clerics, he said, in addition to state and private educational institutions and civil society organisations.

Terror spares no one

Policeman Mohammed Rifaat al-Mansa, who was killed in the Tanta bombing, had been assigned to work in the area of St. George's Church, said his relative Mahmoud Qassem al-Mansa, 45, a private school teacher from al-Sharqiya.

Al-Mansa was a Muslim whose father worked as a preacher in Ministry of Awqaf mosques, Mahmoud told Al-Mashareq.

"His death is proof that terrorism spares absolutely nobody, and that everybody must work together to confront it, inside and outside Egypt," he said.

Many areas around Tanta and in neighbouring al-Sharqiya province have set up mourners’ tents as an expression of solidarity with the victims, Mahmoud added.

"The victim’s father is known for his moderate preaching, his promotion of tolerance and his rejection of terrorism and extremist ideology, which are alien to Islam," his relative said.

Since he received word of his son’s death, Mahmoud added, the policeman's father has remained completely silent, repeating just one phrase: "Rest in peace, the martyr of the homeland".

Lone wolf operations

The attacks on Coptic churches come as ISIL faces increasing pressure in Sinai , where the Egyptian army destroyed ISIL hideouts, weapons caches and vehicles, said military expert Maj. Gen. Talat Moussa, a retired Egyptian military officer.

The attacks on the mainland can be seen as "revenge attacks", he told Al-Mashareq, noting that the perpetrators looked for weak points to breach.

Religious celebrations took place at 2,626 churches on the day of the incident, Moussa said, adding that "the double bombing does not indicate lax security or a lack of seriousness in handling terror threats".

"On the contrary, ISIL has been carrying out lone wolf attacks , which are one of the hardest types of operations to thwart," he explained.

The Alexandria bombing took place at the church entrance, after the police officer in charge of the church's security, who was standing at the main entrance to the church courtyard, apprehended the perpetrator, he said.

"Had the bomber managed to enter the church, the number of casualties would have been higher," he said, noting that many of the victims were policemen.

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