In what is being called the largest terrorist attack in modern Egyptian history, over 300 people were killed at a village mosque. Militants detonated explosives as worshipers exited the Rawda Mosque in Bir al-Abd, 25 miles west of the North Sinai capital of Arish. Several then fired upon the fleeing masses.
There has been no immediate claim of responsibility, but suspicion falls upon the Islamic State. The Rawda mosque is affiliated with the Gaririya Sufi order, and ISIS has previously vowed to attack what it deems to be heterodox Muslims, warning them to stop their distinctive rituals. ISIS represents an extreme Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, and is offended by Sufi practices that seek a mystical connection with God through chants and visits to the shrines of Muslim saints.
In 2013, a Sufi shrine was bombed with no casualties. But in 2016 two prominent Sufi sheikhs were kidnapped and decapitated.
Coptic Christians, who have seen over 100 people killed under an ISIS vow, responded with condemnation and sympathy. The next day, Saturday the 25th, the Coptic Orthodox Church spokesman announced all churches in Egypt would ring their bells in solidarity at noon.
“We pray to God that Egypt is preserved from such unprecedented brutal terrorism,” the church announced in its first statement, released shortly after the bombing. “We offer our sincere condolences to the families of the martyrs, praying for the healing of all who are injured,” stated the second announcement about the bells.
Such a public display of Christianity will only further infuriate ISIS. Two weeks ago they renewed their vow through their Wafa Media Foundation, saying Copts have rejected the conditions of dhimmitude. They continue to build churches, and even spread the gospel on satellite TV.
Until now, local jihadist movements have largely refrained from the widespread targeting of civilian Muslims in Egypt. Christians and the security services have been their targets, seeking to gain approval among Islamists and conservative Muslims angry at the popularly backed military overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi, and subsequent crackdown on his followers.
But some analysts interpret this attack as a sign of desperation. ISIS has largely lost its self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Though providing stubborn resistance, it has failed to gain a territorial foothold in Egypt. They may be devolving back into the pointed sectarianism witnessed before their rise three years ago, returning to patterns of wanton violence.
Local media estimates that Bir al-Abd has a population of 2,500, meaning nearly one in ten village residents are now dead.
Providentially coinciding with the bells, Copts in Egypt began a three day fast in commemoration of an ancient miracle. Today they pray for the same.
“We fast and pray for God to move the hearts of those that would seek to cause harm to any person,” said Fr. Michael Sorial, on behalf of the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America. “An attack on any member of humanity is an attack on all of humanity.”
Bishop Angaelos, newly installed bishop of the diocese of London, also announced the ringing of bells. “Different individuals, different communities, different faith,” he tweeted, “same senseless destruction and pain.”
The focus of Copts has been in sympathy with their fellow Egyptians, as Muslims. But as some analysts seek to make sense of it all, they have landed on the differentiation point of Sufism. Prominent Coptic blogger Maged Atiya warns against this.
“The attacks were horrific, but at least we could blame them on ‘sectarianism’, and hope that once that scourge is cured the attacks will cease,” he writes in his post “An Ecumenism of Blood.” “But the attack on the mosque is an attack on hope itself. It is a murder of hope. Nothing can be gained from it. No religion can be promoted, no culture can be made supreme, no political end can be served. This is utter nihilism, the willful destruction of the very notion of life itself.”
“How does that work exactly?” Atiya replies. “Police puts innocent man in jail -> recruiter tells him he can take revenge on police by attacking a mosque -> man is released -> man attacks mosque. Plausible?”
Atiya recognizes the importance of justice, but to fix terrorism he instead calls for social transformation. “Cultural retardation and normalization of the use of violence are major contributors to rise of terror,” he told Providence. “The ‘solution’ to terror is neither political nor military, but moral.”
President Donald Trump focused elsewhere. “Horrible and cowardly terrorist attack on innocent and defenseless worshipers in Egypt,” he tweeted. “The world cannot tolerate terrorism, we must defeat them militarily and discredit the extremist ideology that forms the basis of their existence!”
But Trump also went on to make a different political point of his own. “We have to get TOUGHER AND SMARTER than ever before, and we will,” he followed. “Need the WALL, need the BAN! God bless the people of Egypt.”
The Copts of Egypt have been asking God to bless their nation for centuries, following the prophecy of Isaiah 19, “Blessed be Egypt, my people.” As their own martyrs have increased, the prayers have taken on more urgency. And now, the plague of terrorism is spreading beyond their community to ordinary Muslims as well.
It is not easy to summarize a Coptic position. Some would echo the cries of President Sisi for better anti-terrorism coordination internationally. Many see an Islamist plot against their country, sometimes tying it to other regional or world powers. Some urge stronger vigilance from the state in guarding houses of worship. Others say tighter security results in less freedom, and that the detractors of Egypt revel in the circle of criticism as one blow enables another to follow.
America can encourage better insurgency strategy coordination, as one former diplomat ironically held Iraq as positive evidence. But what can defeat terrorism? Isolated mosques in the Sinai are easy prey. So are Coptic churches.
Wherever they fall on the political spectrum, with Muslim citizens the Copts are grieving. So far, prayers have not kept their nation safe.
But solidarity might. This, at least, is what Trump gets right. It is also the solution for Copt and Muslim, Sufi and Salafi. Whatever divides, humanity unites. This message must be preached to the choir, over and over again. It is those on the fringes who hear it less clearly. Only their own can bring them the message.
Perhaps the ringing of bells might help. Let it come also in the call of the minaret.
Jayson Casper is a journalist resident in Cairo. Every week he offers Friday Prayers for Egypt, invites all to pray along, and hopes it makes a difference.
Photo Credit: Church and mosque in Egypt. By kmf164, via Flickr.