But like its savior, the Coptic Church carries its cross with pride. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, as Tertullian, the second-century theologian, proclaimed centuries ago. The years have taken their toll: Christianity was largely wiped out of North Africa; the places where Saint Augustine once walked no longer remember his name. Only in Egypt did it survive, the Church of Alexandria, the founding church of Copts, shining alone through Christianity’s early centuries. In Egypt’s deserts, monasticism was born at the hands of Saint Antony the Great, and it was Coptic Popes, from Athanasius to Cyril, who shaped the Christian creed and faith for the whole world.
During the Easter liturgy, a beautiful hymn is chanted, remarkably one of the few that are always recited in Arabic:
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Ya kol al sofoof al sama-eyeen, ratelo le-eelahena be naghamat el-tasbeeh, wabe-tahegoo ma'na al-yowma fareheen, be-keyamat El-Sayed El-Maseeh
This hymn translates to, “All you heavenly orders, Sing to our God with the melody of praise, Rejoice with us today with gladness, In the Resurrection of the Lord Christ.” Death on the cross is followed by resurrection.
Such is the story of the Copts. While their Church faces tremendous challenges in Egypt, it is flourishing abroad. In 1970, there were two Coptic churches in the United States. Today there are 250. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than half a million Africans have joined the Church, which is untainted by the legacy of colonialism, and prides itself as an African Church. There is a future for the Copts.
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And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day it came to pass, that all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt.
I woke up early on Palm Sunday to the news of the bombings in Egypt. I entered my daughters’ room, hugged and kissed them and thanked God that they were born in America. I called my parents in Cairo to check on them. A distant relative was praying in the Alexandria Cathedral and had just left the church as the suicide bomber detonated his vest. His car windows were destroyed, but he was unharmed.
As we made our way to our local Coptic church in Fairfax Virginia, I noticed a police car parked out front. My moment of alarm was short-lived. I reminded myself that the local police were there not because of a bomb threat, but to organize traffic as Copts flock to the church during Holy Week. If the Coptic Church is suffering in its homeland, in America it is struggling to cope with the wave of immigration that has brought over half a million of us here and will continue to bring more.
The service was a very painful one. There were no happy faces in church. The deacon could barely continue reading the Bible through his tears. The priest reminded us of the blessings we enjoy in America as we prayed for our brethren back in Egypt. My wife’s sister sent us a nice picture of her son, a deacon, at the Palm Sunday service in Cairo. I saw a picture of a similarly aged boy, also a deacon, who people on social media said was one of the victims. For the rest of the day, I could not shake the picture from my mind. On Facebook, a friend in Cairo shared how, during the liturgy, before hearing the news, she thought it was a blessing that her daughter hadn’t made it to church that day. In case there was a bomb, at least her daughter would live.
It may well be time for Copts to pack their bags, close their churches, and bid farewell to 2,000 years of Christianity in Egypt. Will the Copts follow the Jews, both ancient and modern, kicked out of Egypt at the hands of Gamal Abdel Nasser? Where would they go? Who would take them? These are depressing questions, ones that Coptic parents in Egypt are confronting. Leaving, it seems, is inevitable.