By Doreen Abi Raad
BEIRUT (CNS) — An Egyptian Catholic leader said he had received many messages of support from Muslims after a Jan. 1 church bombing that killed about two dozen people.
Other Mideast Catholic leaders also sent messages of support to their fellow Christians. The head of Catholic Relief Services in Egypt said he was afraid the bombing indicated a renewal of sectarian violence.
“We have to pray. We have to pray for peace,” Coptic Catholic Bishop Youhannes Zakaria of Luxor, Egypt, told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview.
He said he has received many visits from Muslims — ordinary individuals and officials, including the governor — expressing their sympathy and solidarity.
“They (Muslims) don’t accept this violence. They are very upset about this,” he said.
Bishop Zakaria said he would celebrate Christmas Mass, as the Coptic Orthodox do, Jan. 7, and the governor would also speak about the importance of friendship and dialogue among religions and people. In some Middle East countries, Catholics and Orthodox have agreed to celebrate major religious holidays on the same dates to avoid confusion for the faithful.
In Cairo, Jason Belanger, country representative for the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services, said police had put up barricades to prevent cars from parking next to major Christian churches and had cordoned off areas around them to control pedestrian traffic in preparation for Orthodox Christmas celebrations.
“This is a terrible way to start 2011,” Belanger said. “It’s scary.”
Belanger said the attack was the largest attack against Coptic Christians in the past 10 years, and he was concerned this could signal an increase of attacks not only against Christians in Egypt but against Christians in the entire Middle East.
Others also saw the attacks as part of a plot against Mideast Christians, but one commentator said religious rhetoric and media reports might have led to the bombings.
“It is a clear criminal and terrorist act targeting innocent Christians,” Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregoire III Laham of Damascus, Syria, said in a statement during a pastoral visit to Egypt. “It is a phenomenon that calls for anxiety and vigilance that Christians might be a target for terrorist acts which move from one area to another.”
The patriarch called for Arab and international action against terrorism.
“The targeting of Christians is a clear plan to empty the Orient of its basic components,” he said.
At the Vatican Jan. 1, World Peace Day, Pope Benedict XVI called the bombing a “despicable gesture of death” and part of a “strategy of violence that targets Christians.” He said the bombing had repercussions on the entire Egyptian population and offered prayers for the victims and their families.
Maronite Bishop Bechara Rai of Jbeil, Lebanon, called for an Islamic summit to stop attacks targeting Christians in Egypt and Iraq. He also called on the Arab League to meet to protect the safety of both Christians and Muslims.
“We cannot be content with verbal condemnations, as the pope said. There should be action on the ground,” Bishop Rai said in a statement.
Bishop Zakaria said he thought the bombing was carried out by “someone from outside of Egypt.”
“Like (the attacks) in Iraq, as well as Pakistan, India, Nigeria, and all over the world, it is a political war, and not a religious war,” he said. “The victims are always ordinary people.”
Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, apostolic nuncio to Egypt, told CNS he hoped the Coptic Orthodox could celebrate Christmas in peace.
He said he has expressed his condolences to Orthodox Pope Shenouda III, noting that it is a time to be close to the Christians of Egypt and all those affected.
Belanger said Coptic Christians feel that they are being discriminated against and the government is not providing them with enough security.
“But when the issue is one of a suicide bomber, I don’t know how much protection can really be provided more than doing what they are doing by putting up barricades and controlling pedestrian traffic in front of churches,” he said.
In a commentary in Arab West Report, a digest of media reports from Egypt, Chief Editor Cornelis Hulsman called recent media reports “poisoned.”
In the past several months, media debates included an interview with Coptic Orthodox Bishop Bishoy, secretary of the church’s Holy Synod, in which he suggested that Muslims are merely guests in Egypt. However, Hulsman said, the remarks were taken out of context.
“This was followed by some media claiming that Copts are stockpiling weapons in churches,” Hulsman said, a charge Christians denied.
He added that media also made public a Sept. 23 text of a lecture Bishop Bishoy gave at a clergy conference. In the text, the bishop speculated on whether some verses of the Quran “could have been inserted in response to Muslim-Christian polemics in the early days of Islam.”
“This resulted in weeks of tense discussions around the secretary of the Holy Synod, who is widely regarded as the second-most-powerful man in the Coptic Orthodox Church, after Pope Shenouda III,” Hulsman said.
In November, about 10 houses belonging to Coptic Christians as well as several Christian-owned businesses in Upper Egypt were burned and ransacked. Last January, seven Christians were killed in a Christmas Eve bombing attack on a Coptic Orthodox church.
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Contributing to this story was Judith Sudilovsky in Jerusalem.
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