Shards of stained glass and red brick had fallen from the ceiling of the St. Peter and St. Paul Church to line the floor of the nave, and the smell of blood was now the most prominent scent in a building that had been perfumed by the familiar odors of incense only a few minutes before a 12-kilogram improvised explosive device detonated among the congregation.
A woman in tears stands just inside the door of the Abbasseya Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the main site of religious ritual for Egypt’s largest Christian minority. “Why, Virgin Mary?” she cries out. “We didn’t expect this from you.”
December 11 of the Gregorian calendar fell during the Coptic calendar’s month of Koiak, which is devoted to the Virgin Mary as the Nativity occurs in the month’s final days. Coptic Christians spend time throughout Koiak in church, praying and signing hymns for the religious figure.
The bomb detonated minutes before the Eucharist was offered to the congregation at Sunday’s service, a fact Tadros Zaki, a church deacon, says indicates that attack was well planned.
“The bombing happened just before communion, when the church is most crowded as people flock into the hall to receive the sacrament. The choice of this time would ensure the highest casualty count. Mass starts at 8 in the morning, and the bombing happened at 10 to 10,” he says.
Zaki sits on one of the stone benches inside the church’s playground. His deacon robes ornamented with signs marking his religious position rest beside him in a plastic bag. Still bewildered, he begins to slowly recount the day’s events.
“For a quarter of an hour, we could see nothing but dust and smoke. The ceiling was falling on our heads, and we didn’t know whether we should wait or leave. Women and children were screaming, but we couldn’t reach them. It took three people to open the wooden church door, which had broken in the blast. Who can accept this?” Zaki says.
The St. Peter and St. Paul Church is designed in the style of a Roman basilica and represents a trace of a bygone era in Cairo. It was built by the well known family of Boutros-Ghali, who served as Egypt’s prime minister between 1908 and 1911 and upon whose tomb the church was constructed. St Peter and St. Paul Church is also the final resting place of the latest deceased member of the family, former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
“How could such a large amount of explosives enter the church without being scrutinized by security?”
The physical signs of the church’s history were fundamentally changed by Sunday’s explosion. The murals representing the Stations of the Cross have been distorted. The window frames that once housed stained glass are now empty portals to the outside world. Women’s shoes, children’s clothing and personal belongings are strewn about the wreckage, stained by the blood that is a reminder of the carnage of Sunday morning. People gathered these cast-aside items into a corner, a sign of respect for their former owners, whom many expect have either died or are in critical condition. Nuns look on in disbelief and profound sadness at what remains of candles lit in front of an icon. They ask for mercy for the families of those deceased.
“They always told us to pray for those who hate and kill us. But I can’t do that anymore. I don’t know what to say in my prayers. Any talk from the fathers or the pope that God is the one who protects us is simply a turn away from responsibility,” Zaki says. “I cannot live without resisting, while knowing that my life is in danger. How could such a large amount of explosives enter the church without being scrutinized by security? Do they only send us security personnel to stand by the door, drink tea and harass women?”
With a touch of the conspiracy theories so prevalent in Egypt whose veracity can at times be measured in degrees of truth, the deacon adds that he thinks militants have infiltrated the security forces. It is a fact, he says, that is only exacerbated by church officials abnegating responsibility.
A woman in her 50s wearing all black joins the conversation. She sits next to Zaki on the stone bench and says she was present at the morning service. She asks him if he has heard whether Am Nabil, the church’s porter, had died. Zaki confirms that the man has been killed, and she prays to ask for mercy for him.
“He has three daughters,” Zaki says. “We called his brother to come. If the wood of the church benches was cut into such small pieces, I wonder what happened to people’s bodies. I won’t forget Emad, our friend and my fellow deacon, who watched his wife and daughter blown apart.”
“You work for the media, right?” he continues. “Stop writing conspiracies and bullshit. Tell the officials that we don’t believe it anymore. And if you say that the police and the Armed Forces face the same type of attacks as us, that’s because of their failure. We are paying the price.”
Zaki’s anger is mirrored in the palpable energy emitting from the crowd surrounding the church after the bombing.
Dozens of vehicles representing the Central Security Forces, fire department, medical personnel and the Armed Forces are deployed to the front of the cathedral. Clashes erupt between security forces and people trying to pass into the church’s entrance, which has been closed off by metal barriers to halt the passage of cars and pedestrians.
“There was no security at the door at all, and, even when they’re there, they don’t do anything. They don’t ask anyone where they’re going or what they’re carrying. Why are they coming now?”
“We thought the building was collapsing and ran away. Then, we saw smoke and dust coming out of the church, that the ceiling was falling and the glass from the windows was flying off. We went into the church and couldn’t see anything because of the dust. After it settled, we saw something similar to horror movies: people’s body parts scattered about and blood and remains on the church’s columns. There was no security at the door at all, and, even when they’re there, they don’t do anything. They don’t ask anyone where they’re going or what they’re carrying. Why are they coming now?” says Rawy Khalab, a cashier at a juice store positioned opposite to the church.
While anger is the predominant mood, the crowd struggles to find a target for its outage. Several women begin denouncing the Muslim Brotherhood. “Listen, Muslim Brotherhood. You will not take Sinai. Execution for every coward,” they say. “The people want execution for the Brotherhood.”
However, the crowd doesn’t respond to the chants, and they die out. Another group of woman begin chanting against the police, but this also fails to garner support.
At last, the crowded alights upon a target and demands the removal of Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar.
Several in the crowd are angered by the Interior Ministry and Health Ministry’s use of the word “victims” rather than “martyrs” in their statements broadcast on state-television.
Those gathered also turned their anger toward several prominent media figures known to support President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government – including Ahmed Moussa, Lamis al-Hadidy and Riham Saeed – barring them from reporting on the incident and expelling them from the crowd.
“Christian and Muslim unity means nothing now.”
Sporadic chants of “Muslims and Christians are united in one hand” spring up in the crowd. However, the majority refuse to join the calls for unity.
“This means nothing now,” one man says.
And yet the anger of the square is tempered by an effort to help. Dozens respond to the Red Crescent’s calls for blood donations, huddling in front of ambulances lining the church’s entrance and waiting to donate.