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Bombing at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo: Why Should Israelis Care?

By Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A bomb blast inside St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt killed 25 people on Sunday, Dec. 11. Forty-nine others were wounded. Most of the dead were women and children. The suspected suicide bomber was 22-year-old Mohamed Mostafa.

Although Cairo feels like a whole separate world in terms of space and culture, it is actually just a little more than 400 kilometers (249 miles) away from Jerusalem. Despite its beauty, proximity and low cost of living, Egypt is still not high on the Israeli traveler’s bucket list. While the reasons for this may seem obvious, the implications are less so. Less obvious–and more tragic.

On Sunday morning, 25 Christian worshippers were murdered while at prayer. Many others were seriously wounded. A suicide bomber blew himself up in the women’s section of St. Mark’s Cathedral, ensuring that most of the dead and injured were women and children.

Like the Jews, the Copts maintain their own ancient calendar. The month of Khoik had begun the day before the deadly bombing. This month is an extremely important one, because it leads to the celebration of the birth of Christ (Christmas) that falls on the Gregorian date of Jan. 7. This bombing occurred on the first Sunday Mass of preparation for Christmas. During the month of Khoik, the evenings resound with the worship and traditions of the oldest Christian community in the world–for the Christian presence in Egypt is nearly 2,000 years old.

During the fifth century, the Copts split from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions over issues that most Jews would find singularly unimportant–the specific outlines of the divinity and humanity of Christ. Yet the image of a stubborn minority clinging fast to its views against the rest of the world does indeed sound familiar in its lonely commitment.

There are approximately 18 million Coptic Orthodox Christians alive today; a little more than half live in Egypt, and the rest are dispersed around the world. There are also many Coptic Orthodox churches worldwide.

Egypt was a largely Christian nation until Muslim conquests and immigration changed the landscape. Copts are now a minority in the country; estimates put them at approximately 10 percent of the population. The Coptic Orthodox church is an ethnic Egyptian church. While it does accept converts, it is understood that conversion is a complex road that includes dealing with challenges of ethnicity and language.

Despite their significant presence in Egypt, life is made difficult for the Coptic minority. Terrorist attacks on churches, homes and property are not uncommon. There is great concern about the abduction, forced conversion and forced marriage of Christian girls–enough so that the issue has reached the floor of the United States Congress. Mob violence, workplace discrimination and encouragement to convert to Islam are regular features of Coptic Christian life in Egypt.

Ancient traditions. Ethnic and religious minority. Distinctive culture. Ongoing persecution. These should all sound familiar to most Israelis.

Our Zionist dream saved the Jewish people from a situation not entirely dissimilar from that of the Copts. Now we thrive as are a free people in our own land, finally able to reach out and assist other persecuted minorities. The question that remains is whether we have the will, the expansive vision, and the heart to imagine our Jewish and Zionist responsibilities beyond our own borders and beyond our own people.

So as we sit, securely, in the Jewish state, preparing to celebrate our great holiday of religious freedom just up the road from St. Mark Cathedral, may we spare more than just a passing thought for our Coptic brothers and sisters. Let us commit to understanding more about the religious minorities in our region. Let us refuse to become complacent and selfish in our own freedom.

And let us remember that the choice together with Beit Hillel to celebrate a growing Hannukah light signals increasing good and holiness for the world. And that ultimately it is we who light each candle.

Faydra Shapiro

Dr. Faydra Shapiro is the Executive Director at the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.

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