The message delivered during Sunday’s morning service at the Coptic Orthodox Church of St. Mark in Jersey City was all too familiar: Pray for all of those killed by bombings at their churches in Egypt.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for two terrorist attacks on Coptic churches in the Egyptian Nile Delta town of Tanta and the coastal city of Alexandria that killed at least 44 people during crowded Palm Sunday services, the latest in a string of attacks against the Christian minorities in the majority-Muslim country.
The bombing in Tanta hit especially close to home at St. Mark, where many of the U.S. Copts have friends and relatives who died or were injured in Sunday’s attack. Joseph Ghabour, a deacon at St. Mark, the first Coptic church to open in the U.S, said the church used its morning service to pray for the dead, the wounded and their families. In what has become a common theme, clergy and parishioners also prayed for those who carried out the grisly attacks.
“The sadness that a lot of us feel is more for the terrorists and their perishing souls,” Ghabour said. “We don’t ask for vengeance. We pray that the blinds are taken off their eyes and they can see again. That is always the message.”
The Coptic Orthodox Church was founded by St. Mark in the years following the death of Jesus Christ and broke free from the Roman Catholic Church about 400 years later, according to the church’s history. The Copts have their largest base of support in Egypt, Northern Africa and other pockets of the Middle East, with many establishing a presence in the U.S.
Ghabour said the history of the church has always been one of suffering as waves of governments and competing religions have taken advantage of its people who are usually living as minorities. That history has continued in recent years.
Attackers struck a Coptic church in Cairo in December, killing 25 people. In 2015, the Islamic State released a video purporting to show the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians who had been kidnapped in Libya. And on New Year’s Day 2011, a bombing at a Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt, killed 21 people.
Ghabour said those high-profile attacks have shown the world the kind of persecution his people face, but they only reflect a sliver of the never-ending, smaller attacks they have long endured.
“We’ve had to deal with terrorism in one form or another for centuries,” he said. “Nowadays it’s more pronounced, and it’s more reported on because of social media and the Internet. But the reality is that we’ve had to deal with this for quite some time. I have to say there’s a feeling of a stalemate, but there’s not much we can do other than pray.”
Ghabour said the Copts have changed one thing: their security.
While there have been no reported cases of attacks on Copts in the U.S., Ghabour said the intensifying attacks overseas prompted his church to increase its security several years ago. Now, St. Mark works with the Jersey City Police Department to provide security during their religious holidays and other large-scale events. They also use private security personnel inside their churches throughout New Jersey to monitor who’s coming and going and to watch for suspicious people.
“We have a, ‘If you see something, say something,’ policy in our church,” Ghabour said. “There’s always that fear that this will carry into the U.S. It’s the reality of the world we live in.”
Part of that reality included a round of calls from Coptic Christians in the U.S. to find out about their friend and relatives in Egypt. At Pope Kyrillos VI & Archdeacon Coptic Church in Upper Saddle River, N.J., the attacks were mentioned during the service as people continued checking on their loved ones.
“People are very sad,” said Ragai Roushdy, a church board member. “They don’t know if there could be a relative, a cousin, or someone they know.”