The Two Saints Church: Coptic pain and resolve, one year later

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 1 Jan 2012

One year on from the bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria, Coptic Christians remain concerned about discrimination and religious extremism, but say they will remain engaged on the political scene, no matter what

2 saints
Two Saints church, Alexandria (Photo: Reuters)

A year ago Eman Wassef fell unconscious and lost sight of her husband at New Year's Eve prayers at the Two Saints Church in Alexandria following a deadly attack that left Eman's husband, Samuel Iskandar, and 19 other worshipers dead.

Eman, in her mid-40s, and her two daughters, Nardine, 22 at the time, and Sherry, 12, and some 125 others were gravely wounded, physically and otherwise.

"Each one of us has endured over 25 surgical operations, all over our bodies; we are still under medical treatment and we will be for a few more months, but we have faith that the Lord will help through this ordeal," said Eman, who is dressed in all black before she entered the Two Saints Church for New Year's Eve prayer this Saturday evening.

Speaking to Ahram Online only feet away from the spot where the bomb exploded one year ago, and whose perpetrators and their motives remain unknown, Eman was clearly a deeply saddened woman, but determined to go on.

"We will go on with the help of God; we will keep on in this country and we will not leave despite the pressure, because we believe that this is our country," she said.

The grieving of Nardine is equally deep, and like her mother she is not willing to accept that Copts in Egypt are a persecuted minority, despite sequel attacks that have hit several churches across the country in the past few months as well as the "pain" the two women felt when they saw Coptic demonstrators attacked 9 October in Maspero while demonstrating against attacks on churches.

"It was a painful moment because this time it was not an extremist who attacked, but rather the state," said Nardine.

On that day, Nardine says she was as damaged emotionally as when she woke up from a coma after the Two Saints Church bombing to know that she had lost her father and that her mother was in deep coma, and that she and her sister were so gravely wounded that they could be both paralysed.

"On that day I thought that I have no place left for me in this country and that I had to go, but then after a while I decided that I would not go and that I would stay here."

For Hani Mikhail, a volunteer at the office of the bishop of the Two Saints Church, the worst concern is not about the attack on the church,  previous signs of anti-Coptic sentiment, or even subsequent attacks. The worst concern, he said, was general discrimination against Copts in everyday life, including in jobs and access to public services.

"We want to have a constitution that stipulates full equality among all Egyptians, irrespective of their creed or gender; we want Egypt to be a modern and civil state where individuals are treated on merit of their citizenship not their faith and the way he (or she) worships God," said Mikhail, who is running in Alexandria for the upcoming Shura Council elections on behalf of the Liberal Egyptians Party.

Samia Ibrahim, a worshiper in her early 50s who arrived at the Two Saints Church for New Year's Eve prayers, shared the concern of Wassef and Mikhail. She expressed concern over the attitude of Salafis, "who were shouting in joy following their victory in the recent parliamentary elections, 'The people do not want the cross.'"

"The other day I was on a public bus and I heard one of the Salafis telling his wife that he was being tolerant enough to sit on the same bus with one of the followers of the cross. I was hurt, really hurt, but then I said to myself this guy is not a representative of all Muslims. And after all, God is protecting me."

"It is our duty as moderate Muslims to raise societal awareness of the need to end discrimination," said Nevine Eid who arrived at the Two Saints Church to join New Year's Eve prayers after having taken part in a small march of individuals who commemorated the anniversary of the Alexandria bombing.

Eid, a Muslim in her late-40s, is concious this is not an easy mission, "as for many years State Security Intelligence incited hatred among Muslims and Copts, in order to divide society."

Tough but not impossible is how Eman Wassef qualifies the road to ending discrimination against Copts.

"I am convinced that we can go back to the years of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it was not an issue for anyone to know who is a Muslim and who is a Christian." 

The best way for this to happen, according to Eman and daughter Nardine, is for Copts to keep up the political engagement that started with the January 25 Revolution.

"We suffered years of isolation, pain and frustration, but we are back to public life and we will not allow anything to make us go back on what we have started," said Eman before they joined thousands of worshipers in prayer.

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