By Phoebe Farag Mikhail
I never thought a suicide bombing would teach me something about thanksgiving.
On April 9, 2017, ISIL claimed responsibility for explosions in two Coptic Orthodox Churches in Northern Egypt, killing at least 45 worshipers and injuring over 100 more. A few months ago, in December 2016, they claimed responsibility for another bombing in a Cairo church that killed 25 people. All the incidents occurred as the Christians of Egypt began their preparations for the upcoming feasts – in November for the Feast of the Nativity, and on Palm Sunday for the Feast of the Resurrection.
The members of the ISIL, a death cult at once fascinated with and yet afraid of death, had been threatening to attack the Christians in Egypt for months. They seem under the impression that death will overcome a religion that is about eternal life. They don’t seem to understand the futility of killing people who believe in the resurrection of the dead.
During Holy Week, the week that leads up to the Feast that defines Christianity, some people in Egypt may have stayed home from church out of fear. But many more went to church. The numbers swelled, and the church buildings could not contain them – just as the tomb could not contain Him. In the words of Justin Martyr about the early Christians who suffered persecution, “you can kill us, but you can’t harm us.”
Fr. Boules George, in his sermon in Cairo on Palm Sunday night in a church full of thousands of worshipers, addressed the perpetrators of the violence by thanking them:
Usually attendance at the Eve of Monday Pascha is very little. People are usually so tired after a long Palm Sunday Liturgy and the General Funeral, and they don’t come to the Eve of Monday services. When I came in tonight, there were people on chairs outside the sanctuary, there were people in the balcony seating. The church is completely full. There isn’t even one empty nook. Thank you. We are so grateful that you’re helping fill up our churches.
Surprising as it is for a Coptic Orthodox priest to be thanking ISIL for bombing two Coptic Churches on Palm Sunday, thanksgiving is a recurring theme in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Every single prayer in the church begins with the Lord’s Prayer and the Thanksgiving Prayer, whether it is a prayer from the daily office (the Agpeya), a Divine Liturgy, a baptism, a wedding, even a funeral – every prayer begins with thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving Prayer includes these powerful words, “We thank You in any condition, in every condition, and in whatever condition.” This prayer is echoed in one of the prayers specific to the Feast of Our Lord’s Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), a prayer those Coptic martyrs would have heard just a few minutes before the explosions: “Prepare also. O Lord, our souls for praising You, singing to You, blessing You, serving You, worshipping You, glorifying You, giving thanks to You, every day and every hour.”
In the U.S., Coptic congregations began their prayers on Palm Sunday with the knowledge of the horrific events that happened in Egypt a few hours before. During the Sunday sermon in my church, Fr. Athanasius Farag reminded us that in Christianity, “suffering is a part of the calling.” St. Paul wrote in Colossians 1:24, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” St. Peter even exhorted the believers to “rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed” (I Peter 4:13).
Fr. Daniel Maher knows this suffering all too well. The priest of St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Tanta, Egypt, he lost over 25 parishioners during the bombing. One of them was his own son. He attended his son’s funeral in the same tunic he wore during the Palm Sunday liturgy, spattered with the blood of the martyrs that included 22 year old Bishoy. And yet after the funeral he continued to lead his congregation in prayer for the rest of Holy Week. Suffering is a part of the calling.
The widow of Naseem Faheem also knows this suffering well. Her husband was the guard at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria, who died while redirecting the suicide bomber through the metal detector, possibly saving dozens of lives. An interview with her on Egyptian national television shows her publicly forgiving the man who killed her husband. “I’m not angry at the one who did this. I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you. You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.’” Suffering is a part of the calling.
There are, undoubtedly, important social and political issues that need to be addressed as a result of these attacks against the Copts in Egypt. Political analysts have pointed out that ISIS is strategically building on the internal sectarianism, discrimination and bigotry fomented against the Copts in Egypt to now make them an easy target of their international terrorism. Thanksgiving and forgiveness in suffering is not a green light for more attacks. Jesus Christ Himself, when He was struck during one of His trials before His crucifixion, spoke up: “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” (John 18:23).
And so, in the wake of these senseless attacks, we ask groups like ISIL, why do you strike us? What wrong have we done to you? To our fellow Egyptians we ask, why do you allow these injustices against us? What wrong have we done to you? To the global powers we ask, why do you continue to make your priority oil, arms, money, and power, at the expense of human beings? At the expense of entire peoples?
These questions, however, should not take away our peace. We should seek justice while praying for those who mete injustice. During the readings for Holy Thursday during Holy Week, we annually read this excerpt from a homily of St. John Chrysostom:
For our Lord taught us not to grieve over him who endures suffering, but rather to grieve over the evildoer. It is fit to prevail him who does evil more than he who accepts sufferings. Indeed, he who accepts sufferings is not evil, but rather he who does evil is wicked. For to be in sufferings leads us to the heavenly kingdom. But evildoing leads us to hell and into punishment. For it is said, ‘Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.’
Christians are called to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us. As distasteful as this may sound, this means we must pray for ISIL and the terrorists like them. The global powers seem unable to stop their bloody actions. Perhaps love will.
And so I am adding to my prayers for the martyrs’ families prayers for the members of ISIL and other people that seek to do evil instead of good. And I am learning that when I thank God “in any condition, in every condition, and in whatever condition,” I might not be asking God to take me out of a condition of suffering, or even to see a silver lining around that suffering. Rather, I am thanking Him in that condition of suffering.
To help me approach this season of Resurrection with joy and thanksgiving despite the difficulties my brothers and sisters in Egypt have faced, I customized a mini daily “gratitude first” notebook using May Designs with the words of the Thanksgiving Prayer on the cover. I created three more of these, and subscribers to my blog can be entered to receive one of the notebooks. To enter, subscribe to my email newsletter and then comment below on what you are thankful for this season, “in any condition, in every condition, and in whatever condition.”
© Phoebe Farag, 2017