A deadly act of terror marked the start of the Christian Holy Week for the Rev. Beshoy Dawood, who was heading to St. Demiana Coptic Orthodox Church in Bakersfield to start Palm Sunday prayers when he learned suicide bombers struck two Coptic churches in Egypt, killing 44 people.
“It was shocking,” Dawood says, “but we asked God to give us strength.”
The priest celebrated Mass as scheduled, although the anguish was fresh and personal. A cousin was injured in one of the attacks for which ISIS claimed responsibility. He was in critical condition.
We have faith in God’s justice and we have faith in God’s mercy as well.
The Rev. Beshoy Dawood
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Coptic priests in the central San Joaquin Valley say they feel safe from terror, but the attacks abroad have made some increase security measures. At Archangels Michael and Gabriel Coptic Orthodox Church in Fresno’s Tower District, that means alerting law enforcement about upcoming services and events, and a churchgoer with a security company keeping a more watchful post outside.
Faith leaders, including Pope Francis, often stress that ISIS is a radicalized terror group wrongfully using Islam to justify violence. Bishop Armando Ochoa of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno echoed this in a statement about the Palm Sunday attacks: “Let us join our Holy Father, Pope Francis, who calls us to pray for the conversion of hearts and minds of religious extremists who exploit the Islamic faith for devious and evil purpose, along with those who are radicalized to follow them.”
Even for the terrorists, we pray for them, that God will enlighten their minds and show them what they are doing is wrong.
The Rev. Tadros Meleka
But others, like the Rev. Tadros Meleka of Fresno’s Coptic church, say faith leaders need to do more to address some harsh realities: “Unfortunately, the fact is it (violence) is in the Quran (Islam’s holy book).” Meleka acknowledges that violence is in the Bible, too, and that it has been used in the past by some to justify killing others of a different faith. He says most now view those Bible passages this way: “Even in the Old Testament, there are some stories about violence, but Christians now, or Jews now, do not use this to justify killing others because we understand that those verses or those stories were for a certain purpose at a certain time, and it’s done.”
The Palm Sunday attacks weren’t the first time Coptic churches have been targeted abroad. Coptic Christians are a religious minority in the predominately Muslim Egypt, where the Coptic Church was established in the middle of the first century. Coptics make up a small portion of the Valley’s Christian population – a handful of Coptic churches in Fresno, Visalia, Bakersfield and Ripon, just north of Modesto – but the group is larger than most Valley residents realize, Meleka says. Around 40 Egyptian American families attend Fresno’s Coptic church.
“Most of the people (in Fresno) do not know much about Egypt … they get astonished when they learn there is Christianity there,” Meleka says.
The Rev. Youhanna Eskandar of St. George and St. Pishoy Coptic Orthodox Church in Visalia describes the Coptic Church as “well-entrenched” and traditional: “Our church is raw. We keep it as it is. We are not going to try and make it conform.”
Meleka says he’s been asked by some churchgoers why the Palm Sunday attacks happened, or why Coptics don’t plan to retaliate.
“That’s not the Christian way to do this,” Meleka says. “We pray, even for the terrorists … that God will enlighten their minds and show them what they are doing is wrong.”
He’s hopeful for continued healing and peace this Easter:
“It’s a commandment of our Lord Jesus to pray for those even who curse us.”