Palm Sunday is usually a day of celebration. There are, however, bittersweet moments. We all know the story, and know that the same Jesus who rides into town on the donkey to the acclamation of the crowds will be betrayed, denied, humiliated and even put to death before the week is out.
The Holy Week story of suffering and death became very real to the Church in Egypt this year when suicide bombers targeted the Mar Girgis Church in Tanta, a large town in the Delta, and then later in the morning St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, where Pope Tawadros II was officiating.
At least 45 people died and over 100 were injured in the explosions.
I had already celebrated ‘Palm Friday’, for many churches in Egypt have services on Friday as that is the day when working people are off. But on the Saturday I had travelled to Alexandria for an overnight visit.
I arrived in time to wander round the city, visiting the Anglican Church and seeing how beautifully it was decorated for Palm Sunday and then making my way to the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, St. Mark’s, where in the courtyard a number of people were weaving wonderfully intricate palm crosses and other decorations.
On Sunday morning I returned to the Cathedral to worship. Security was tight, and my passport was taken away to be checked. Finally, I was allowed through the gate into the courtyard, and to the church beyond. The Cathedral was absolutely packed, with people standing down the aisles. I squeezed in at the back near the mosaic of St Mark, but was able to hear the Pope preach.
After just under an hour I slipped away, as I wanted to attend the Attareen Presbyterian Church, a church which has its roots in Scottish and Swiss missionaries. Again, the church was full of people celebrating Palm Sunday. I stayed for communion, but had to rush away to collect my bag from my hotel in order to reach the station in time to catch my train.
In making my way back to the hotel, however, I soon became aware that something was terribly wrong. There was an uncanny silence only broken by ambulance sirens. And yet the streets were crowded. People were obviously distraught and in some kind of shock.
As I walked over broken glass from shop windows, I stopped at a coffee shop which I had visited the previous day to ask what had happened. The man at the counter could not speak – the tears just ran down his face.
It was only when I reached the hotel that I was able to hear that a bomb had exploded at the Cathedral. I thought immediately of the people I had spoken to, like the men weaving the palm crosses or the police officer who had inspected my passport. It was only later that I learnt that because of the swift action of the police, the bomb had exploded at the gate of the Cathedral compound, rather than inside where there would certainly have been more casualties. Sadly several of the police officers lost their lives.
In December a bomb exploded in the church adjoining the Cathedral in Cairo, killing and injuring many worshippers. In March the Islamic State group killed at least seven men in Northern Sinai, after posting a video threatening to cleanse Christians from that area.
Now at the start of Holy Week, there have been more deaths. Christians are asking what is next and also questioning security, which was an issue in Tanta, but not so in Alexandria.
The Church has a long history of oppression and even dates its calendar from the period of severe persecution under the emperor Diocletian. Christians have proved to be amazingly resilient over the years, and even now, life continues, and the Holy Week services continue, as people refuse to let terrorism and fear have the last word. There is a Coptic Orthodox Church across the road which I sometimes attend, and speaking with some of the young people gathered there, they simply say, ‘Pray for us’ – and they believe it will make a difference.