Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
CAIRO — On a Friday afternoon, a large group of Christians in Egypt went on pilgrimage to the monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor. The Christian families — grandparents, parents, and children — boarded the bus along with two other vehicles for a weekend of renewal at this spiritual oasis with the monks in the Egyptian desert.
Along the highway, they were ambushed by an armed group of Islamist gunmen associated with the Islamic State terror group, who fired upon the bus, and then demanded the survivors renounce their faith in Jesus Christ and recite the Shehada, the Muslim profession of faith. When they refused, the killing began again in earnest, and the families that left as pilgrims became martyrs and confessors instead.
“The more we prayed for Christ, the angrier they became and started shooting again and more violently,” Boshra Kamel, the bus driver, told the Washington Post.
At least 30 Coptic men, women, and children gave their lives for Jesus Christ that day, including an American from the Chicago area. Many more have been injured. CBS Chicago reports that Mohsen Morkous, his two sons, 4-year-old granddaughter, and 12-year-old granddaughter, and three other family-members were among those murdered for the faith. Morkous’ wife, Samia Adly, survived the slaughter.
"When they asked each person about it, everybody say no, they shot them in the head," Gerges Morkous, a cousin, told CBS.
ISIS, which has called Christians its “favorite prey” in Egypt, claimed responsibility for the murders carried out on the eve of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The terror group is collapsing in Syria and Iraq, but is waging a brutal insurgency campaign in Egypt and the Philippines, striking both countries, as well as Manchester, England in recent days.
Pope Francis, who visited Egypt last month as a “pilgrim of peace,” proclaimed that the Christians were “martyrs” and led thousands gathered in St. Peter’s Square in prayer. Bishops in the United States poured out their grief, expressing solidarity with the grieving Church in Egypt, and calling for justice.
Egypt’s government took the step of removing personnel overseeing security in Minya, a province that has long been an epicenter of security problems for Christians in Egypt. A state investigation found security forces had been nowhere near the desert road where the Christians were attacked, allowing the murderers to make their getaway.
Testimonies of the massacre of the pilgrims to St. Samuel’s monastery are continuing to come in. It has been the forth violent attack on Coptic Christians since December 2016, claiming more than 100 lives.
The youngest martyr of the St. Samuel’s pilgrimage was an 18-month old baby, Maroska. Her grandmother Nadia Shokry, who also lost her husband Samuel, and her son Mina, told the Washington Post, that they forgive their attackers: “I pray God touches their hearts and changes them so that they see the right path.”
The example of Egypt’s Christians in forgiving the perpetrators of these atrocities against them, instead of seeking revenge, has left a powerful impression on Egyptian society, leading one leading Egyptian talk show host to say in April, “the Copts of Egypt are made of steel.”
What Being a Christian Means
Living as a Christian — or giving one’s life totally over to Jesus Christ — may feel abstract in North American or European countries, but it is not an abstract commitment in Egypt. Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman for Egypt’s Catholic Conference, told the Register in plain terms: “Today it means I could be a martyr in the next four seconds.”
A Christian must accept in principle that he may have to testify to the Lord at any moment — and while every Christian around the world should know this, Father Greiche explained that Egypt’s Christians are deeply aware of it. He likened it to knowing you are sitting next to a bomb, knowing that it may — or may not — go off at any time, without warning.
But Father Greiche said the Church in Egypt has to remind their youth that God placed them in this holy land to be his witnesses, even though it is a dangerous situation, and embracing that witness means “we are ready to be martyrs at any second.”
Father Greiche said ISIS and its allied militants seem to have three goals in mind with this attack: first, a violent reply to the speech of President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, who called for cutting off the financial and ideological support of terrorism at the recent U.S.-Arab Islamic countries summit in Saudi Arabia; second, to divide the Egyptian people between Muslims and Christians, and drive Muslims toward the fundamentalist and extremist Salafi groups; third, to “purify” the land of Christians, where they have been since the days of the Apostles.
On that score, Father Greiche explained ISIS has not achieved their goals. He explained that ordinary Muslims in Egypt — not the fundamentalists — have been filled with horror and revulsion by these attacks, and have drawn closer to Christians. Father Greiche said the beginning of Ramadan is usually a time of celebration. But many Muslims, he said, have been sending them condolences instead, and the state Islamic authority canceled all celebrations planned for last Saturday to show solidarity with Egypt’s Christians.
“They [ISIS] are successful to unify us, instead of dividing us,” he said.
Father Greiche said Christians in Egypt need above all the prayers of the Church’s members throughout the world. But he added Christians need to follow through with action, and push their governments to make their best efforts to help Egypt stop the terrorist attacks, and uproot the extremists living among them. This includes providing Egypt with better technology or information that can help them prevent attacks and protect Christians.
He said, “Our government is doing its best — it is not the best — but it is doing the best it can with what it has.”
In lieu of comments, please say a prayer instead for the surviving families and friends of the new Coptic martyrs, and consider making a donation to Coptic Orphans, or reaching out to a local Coptic Orthodox church or diocese to express your condolence and solidarity.