Egyptian Americans in Southern California are still reeling from yesterday's church bombings in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria. The bombings of the two Coptic churches on Palm Sunday left nearly 50 people dead and over 100 more injured. The group known as the Islamic State - or ISIS - claimed responsibility for the blasts.
Coptic Christians are a minority in Egypt, making up roughly 10% of the overall population. And it isn't the first time Copts have been the targets of violence in the region.
Southern California is home to a large Egyptian American population and many are members of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Take Two's A Martinez spoke with Father Joseph Boules of Saint Mary & Saint Verena Coptic Orthodox Church in Anaheim. Father Joseph explained how the local Coptic community and their ties in Egypt are processing the attacks.
What is the link between the Coptic community in Egypt and here in California?
We are one church. The Coptic Orthodox Church has the head church in Egypt. Throughout the Coptic Orthodox churches in the world, in Australia, America, Canada, Europe, Egypt, Middle East– anywhere we would be celebrating he same readings and the same events. So, there's a big connection. What we are doing here, they are doing exactly the same thing, just a few hours before us. And of course, many people have connected families. So, they call each other congratulating each other about the beginning of the holy season– of the Holy Week.
Is there any concerns or fear about attending church services?
Christianity has been in Egypt for close to 2,000 years. When St. Mark the Apostle, the one who wrote the gospel and who brought Christianity to Alexandria... and the Coptic Orthodox Church has been around all this time, since he came in year 60 or 70. And we've gone through many persecutions and the church still survived. But we have faith in our Lord that he's protecting his church.
When these things happen, our churches get more packed because people are coming to pray for the souls of the slain victims and to show solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Egypt. I did have a couple of people from the community reach out and lend us their support from Calvary Chapel, from the Catholic Church, from the sister Orthodox Churches. So, it's comforting for our congregation to know people are aware of what's going on and are praying for the families.
How did you address the news at your own church on Palm Sunday?
To be honest, we prayed the liturgy with a very heavy heart and deep sadness because these events tend to happen near our high celebrations. For example, a recent one happened around our Christmas and before that, there was something around the previous new year. And our people are just sad. And my message on Sunday was, we are gathered to celebrate the feast of Palm Sunday. And that's the entry of the Lord into Jerusalem and it was to begin his suffering. So, he allows all of this to happen but he is suffering with us. He's not leaving us alone. So I told the people that we are all in his hands. And what he did on the cross was to give us confidence and trust in him that he's able to take care of us.
Was your family directly affected by the attacks?
My wife's cousins go to the church in Tanta that was hit the St. George Church. Fortunately, they were safe. But the other unfortunate part is this is the church that has the most casualties because the suicide bomber was able to enter into the church. And according to some reports, he went all the way up to the front pew in that church before he blew himself up.
How do you process these events when they happen?
You don't. This is beyond human. We feel very sad for the suicide bomber because sometimes you look at these people before their missions, and they could be your dear friend. They appear innocent. There's no way they are innocent of the blood on their hands. I'm just saying they are so brainwashed, it's hard to reach them. I pray that they awaken at some point and realize the atrocities they're causing to humanity, to all mankind altogether. Not just the Copts.
How do you think these events will influence Holy Week for your church?
According to reports from our sister churches in Egypt, the churches are packed. And people are even standing outside. Usually, this is the time of year when we have a lot of attendance anyways, but it is noticeably more because people are not scared of afraid of these operations. And we're talking gibberish as far as the attackers are concerned. They don't even understand what Christians are charged to do. And that is to love their enemies.
How can someone like yourself foster peace in Southern California?
These times of the year are suppose to be building happy memories. I remember my childhood– I came to American when I was 14-years-old. So, I did attend a few Palm Sundays back home in Egypt and these are happy times. The family is together and we talk into the church the palm leaves and just as the children receive the Lord Jesus Christ with the palm leaves, and just happy memories. We are robbing our children from these beautiful memories. I can't fathom what the children of these two churches and nearby churches are building in the way of memories when they see all of this blood in the street and pieces of flesh. It's just so gruesome. The only comfort we have in all of this is that we are fully, 100% faithful to the Lord. That's he's able to protect his church and there's a plan for all of this, we just don't know it yet. But that's our faith.
What message do you have for your congregation now and in the weeks to come?
Just remember that life on Earth here is temporary. We don't live here forever, we live in Heaven forever. And while we see some heartbreaking images of innocent deacons dressed with their white robes and singing the hymns of the Palm Sunday, and then, seconds later, the church's own broadcast camera just goes to black because of the explosion that just happened. These people, in seconds were transferred to Heaven. And they are standing in front of the ultimate alter of the Lord. This is comforting. At the same time, the human element in all of us– we miss out loved ones. We want to touch them. We want to see them. But hopefully, we will all be united one day together.
Quotes edited for clarity.