JERSEY CITY, N.J. (RNS) On Palm Sunday, many members of the Coptic Orthodox Church of St. Mark awoke to the news that people dear to them had died or were wounded simply for being Coptic Christians.
So what did they do? They headed straight to church.
“It’s not the first time the Coptic Church has been targeted,” said Joseph Ghabour, a spokesman for St. Mark. “And it won’t be the last.”
Ghabour said Copts in New Jersey and throughout the United States and the world believe love and prayer will sustain church members whose loved ones died or were injured in one of two Coptic church bombings in Egypt, the first in Tanta and the second in Alexandria. The blasts killed more than 40 people and injured at least 100.
St. Mark is the first Coptic Church in New Jersey, established in 1970 with informal ministry several years prior. There are more than 20 Coptic Christian churches in New Jersey, many set up by people who emigrated from Egypt.
Ghabour said St. Mark is setting up donations for the families of the victims.
As important, he said, “people are holding (them) up in prayer, which we think is of the utmost importance at this point.”
On Monday (April 10), the church held a Holy Week service and added additional security.
Ghabour noted it wasn’t only Christians who were killed in the two Palm Sunday attacks. Three officers stationed at the site of one of the attacks were Muslim.
Asked about Egypt’s three-month-long declaration of emergency, Ghabour makes the case that Egyptian authorities are “in an impossible situation because when you fight an organized enemy, you know who it is. But when you fight an ideology as an enemy you have to fight a fine line.”
Dr. Mona Tantawi, a New Jersey Muslim from Egypt and a pediatrician, was profoundly moved by Copts’ reaction and sees continued attacks on Coptic churches as an attempt to destabilize Egypt.
“The Egyptian community, Christian or not, we are the same culture,” she said. “What happened was devastating, and when I look at their reaction? … They are really living out the teachings of Jesus.”
The Rev. Markos Ayoub views living amid the sadness of loved ones lost and the knowledge that blasts may happen at any time as “one of the new realities, these unacceptable new realities.”
“We do not accept injustice. In the same breath, we have no animosity towards anybody,” he said. “This is our faith. To love our enemies. No vengefulness. We love everybody, including even the terrorists.”
The irony isn’t lost on both men that the blasts have resulted in Copts’ going to church in even greater numbers.
“The whole intent behind these attacks from terrorists is to prevent people from going to church to pray,” Ghabour said. “Let us be clear, yesterday in our church we had three services; one was fairly early, started at 6:30 and ended 9:30. And that’s when we found out about the (second) attack.”
Yet the services were “packed beyond normal levels for a Palm Sunday.”
“So the terrorists are thinking people are not going to church?” Ghabour asked. “People will go out in even greater numbers and pray for the very same terrorists who want to kill them.”
(Chris Sagona is a correspondent based in New Jersey)