Palm Sunday Widower in Egypt Remembers Deadly Attack—Open Doors Calls for Worldwide Prayer
Magid’s family always looked forward to Palm Sunday.
Each year, they made a little extra income selling palm branches outside their church, Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Egypt’s northeast coastal city of Alexandria. Selling the symbolic fronds had become as much a tradition for the family as waving the branches during the mass at the start of Holy Week.
Last year was no different. A few days before the start of Holy Week, Magid and his wife Hannan, along with their children, Youssef and Maryam, ages 8 and 6, busily prepared for their annual “side” business. The family also was looking forward to welcoming Pope Tawadros II, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. He would be leading prayers that Sunday at St. Mark’s.
While the family of four anticipated the upcoming celebration, across the world the president of their country, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was in Washington, D.C., meeting with President Trump and a US congressional delegation at the White House. Among the topics of mutual concern were terrorism and the growing power of Islamic State militants.
Only two months before in February 2017, ISIS had publicly pledged further attacks on Egypt’s 9 million Christians when they claimed responsibility for the December 11, 2016, deadly bombing of St. Mark’s Cathedral church in the capital city of Cairo. The attack killed 29 people and caused an estimated 250 Christians to flee the country. A month later, local news outlets reported that on March 29, Egyptian police had defused a bomb placed in the Mar Girgis church in Cairo.
Since 2013, violence against Christians had been on the rise in the Arab world’s most populous country. Christians largely supported el-Sisi, who came to power after Egypt’s military overthrew elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. After taking office, el-Sisi launched a brutal crackdown on Islamic extremists throughout Egypt.
Egypt’s president knew he needed help to fight the growing insurgency in his country.
In the meeting, leaders focused on Egypt’s counterterrorism efforts and a strategy to fight terror while encouraging religious tolerance and acceptance of others. National headlines around the world reported on how the two leaders had reiterated their resolve to work together to fight extremist groups.
Magid’s family had no inkling that in only a few days these meetings in a country they had never even been to would have such personal impact.
Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017
The day had finally arrived. Hannan, Youssef and Maryam got up early to make their way into the city. Magid had stayed in the city the night before, guarding the family’s stall where they would soon repeat another year of the family tradition. The downtown area around the church that’s usually bustling with shoppers and diners would be relatively quiet that morning because of the Palm Sunday holiday. Their booth would be easy to see.
Hannan and Youssef joined Magid at 6 a.m. while Maryam went into the early-morning service with her aunt.
It was around 10 a.m. when the news reached Alexandria. A bomb had exploded in St. George’s Church in the city of Tanta. One of Egypt’s largest cities, Tanta is about 70 miles away from Alexandria and 50 miles north of Cairo. Later, the world would learn the full story.
A man wearing a vest of concealed explosives had managed to pass through a security check outside the church and had reportedly walked into the main prayer hall during Sunday mass. The congregation was singing hymns when the man detonated himself near the front pews, killing 27 people and wounding 78.
A few hours after the explosion in Tanta, St. Mark’s Cathedral would also be hit. Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, has a large Christian population. St. Mark’s Cathedral, thought to have been founded by the apostle Mark in the first century, is the historic seat of Christendom in Egypt.
Though no announcements of the first bombing were made during the mass, congregants reportedly said they could hear the sadness in Pope Tawadros II’s voice as he led Palm Sunday prayers.
Church security camera footage from St. Mark’s showed another bomber attempting to enter the church through an open gate and being directed toward a metal detector guarded by police officers. When an officer stopped the man, he detonated himself outside the gate as people were leaving the Palm Sunday service. The explosion killed three officers and 14 civilians and injured 48 others.
One of the 14 citizens was Hannan, Magid’s wife of 10 years.
“After the blast, there was smoke. And when the smoke faded, I saw loose body parts everywhere. The face of the guard was totally black. And then I saw Hannan,” he says, looking down. “My dear wife, in a pool of blood.”
Magid also lost his nephew and uncle in the attack.
Meet Magid and his family in the video below as they remember Hannan…
Deadliest Day of Violence for Egypt’s Christians in Decades
The two church attacks that took a total of 44 lives constituted one of the deadliest days of modern-day violence targeting Egypt’s Christian community (an estimated 10 percent of the country’s 92 million people) in decades. Islamic State militants claimed responsibility for the bombings—strategically timed on Palm Sunday a few days after President el-Sisi’s meetings in Washington. They also struck during the mass where Pope Tawadros II was and only three weeks before Pope Francis was scheduled to visit Egypt.
Reportedly, the bombings illustrated ISIS’s ability to launch attacks across Egypt and the threat it posed to the country’s population of Coptic Christians. The bombings were also ISIS’s response to el-Sisi’s war on terrorism and meetings in the West.
The New York Times reported: “The goals [of the attacks] were to fan the sectarian discord between Christians and Muslims in Egypt and the world, to undercut Mr. Sisi’s pledges to resist Islamist terror and defend the Christian minority, and to spread fear throughout Egypt on the eve of a papal visit.”
One Year Later—12 Months of Violent Persecution for Egypt’s Christians
In their statement claiming responsibility for the two attacks, ISIS militants threatened further violence against Egypt’s Christians whom they described as “crusaders and “apostates”: “The Crusaders and their apostate followers must be aware that the bill between us and them is very large, and they will be paying it like a river of blood from their sons, if God is willing.”
The attacks and ISIS’s public vow to kill Christians unleashed a string of targeted persecution attacks on groups, as well as individuals—carried out by ISIS and other non-affiliated Islamic extremist groups. Since the Palm Sunday bombings, more than 120 Christians have been killed in Egypt, with most attacks claimed by Islamic State militants:
- In May, ISIS gunmen attacked a bus of Coptic Christians on their way to a monastery in the Minya region, 150 miles south of Cairo, killing at least 30 people and wounding 26. Christians were singled out and told to “convert or die.”
- In June, we reported on the abduction of young Christian girls in Egypt that Muslim groups target for conversion and pay kidnappers to abduct them. Reportedly, these groups entice and torture these young girls to renounce their faith, usually by forced marriage.
- In October, a Coptic Orthodox priest was stabbed to death in Cairo. A young man with a meat cleaver blocked the vehicle Samaan was in and forced him to get out. He had been lying in wait near the local church and later said he killed Samaan because, “Christians are infidels and killing them is a religious duty.”
- In November, two churches in the southern province of Minya were closed, citing harassment and attacks by extremists. A third was closed due to fear of attacks. Reportedly, Muslims extremists tried to attack one of the churches; a Coptic woman was wounded in the attempt. Later that day, the mob attacked Christian homes.
- In December, extremists came out in full force, attacking Mar Mina church in Cairo on December 29. At least 10 people, including eight Coptic Christians, were killed after unidentified gunmen opened fire outside a church in a south Cairo suburb. A year before on December 11, 2016, 29 people died when a gunman attempted to storm St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s Church in Cairo.
- Also in December 2017, a few hours before bombing the church, the militant attacked a Christian-owned shop in the same area, killing two brothers.
- In December, villagers in Atfieh reportedly stormed a property that had been used as a place of worship by Christians. Muslims heard a rumor that church bells were to be installed atop the house where their Christian neighbors assembled for prayer.
- In January, a young shop owner, Bassem Herz Attalhah, was killed when militants asked, “Are you a Christian?” Bassem immediately answered “yes”—twice. His killers, part of the State of Sinai terrorist group, answered Bassem’s cell phone. They vowed to kill more Copts “before they put down the phone.” Also, in January, two Christian brothers were killed in Cairo by a masked assailant who shot at their shop from outside after pulling up on a motorcycle.
The Depth of Persecution
As these persecution incidents targeting Egypt’s Christian community continue to come one after another, almost serially, the impact and fear accumulate. Each violent act has a far-reaching and deep effect on those left to do life without a wife, husband, mother, father, grandparent, etc.
Magid still can’t fully comprehend what happened the day he lost his beloved Hannan. Pictures of her cover the walls in the family’s living room.
“It has been a nightmare from the start, and I just don’t wake up from it. I loved her so much,” he says, adding that it has been unspeakably difficult for his children, especially 8-year-old Youssef.
“He saw how it happened,” Magid says. “I try to make him forget about it, but I find him time and time again watching videos from the incident on the internet.”
Without Hannan, Magid does his best to raise their children on his own. As a family, they often look at a picture of Hannan and the children taken just moments before she died. Magid hopes they will remember their mother’s faith.
“She was always reading the Bible with them. She taught them how to pray,” he says. “I tell my children that their mother is in Heaven now and that she is doing well.”
Magid asks for prayer from his brothers and sisters in Christ to help him face the days ahead without his wife and their children’s mother.
“Please pray for my dear children,” he says. “And pray for me, that God gives us the strength to endure.”
The widower finds hope in God’s provision of friends and family who surround him and his family.
“God sends us people to help us and pray for us,” he says. “That is comforting me.”
One Body, One Church Praying Together
As Holy Week 2018 begins throughout the world, Open Doors is calling Christians around the world to pray for protection for our persecuted family in Egypt and in all of the 50 countries on the World Watch List. Persecution incidents rise in both frequency and intensity during religious holidays like Christmas and Easter.
“Easter carries extra risk and danger for millions of Christians in places like Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan—anywhere persecuted believers celebrate our Risen Savior,” says Open Doors CEO David Curry. “We need to be praying with our persecuted brothers and sisters.”
Pray that those who lost family and friends during last year’s attacks on Palm Sunday would seek out fellowship throughout Holy Week and stand firm in the promise that God is working these acts of violence for His glory. Last year after the twin bombings, Open Doors’ field director for Egypt shared that the attacks—and how the church in Egypt responded to them—spurred countrywide evangelism, giving believers and churches tremendous opportunity to testify to thousands.
“It has never been so clear and so open for the church to share the gospel,” she said in an interview last year. “After each attack, we’ve had the opportunity to speak out in the media and to testify about the gospel message of love and forgiveness in the face of evil.
Her words offer much-needed eternity-minded perspective to grieving Christians like Magid and his family: “God is revealing His love to the people of Egypt. Pain and agony are like seeds—growing up through the soil of our country to produce the fruit of the gospel. God is using these events—that Satan meant for destruction—as the greatest gospel platform in Egypt’s history.”
This week as you prepare to reflect on Christ’s passion on the cross and celebrate His resurrection, remember your brothers and sisters who live and die for their faith. Some, like our Egyptian brothers and sisters, will gather together in churches—knowingly risking their lives and the lives of their families. Others will celebrate in secret, unable to gather publically. And for many, like believers in North Korea, they will celebrate silently, in their hearts.
Egypt’s field director reminds us of our constant connection: “God doesn’t consider borderlines. There is one Church, and we need to work together, to join hands. It’s about walking this journey together.”