After Egyptian Terror Attacks, Jerusalem’s Coptic Christians Strive to Keep Up the Spirit

On Holy Thursday, local and visiting Copts horrified by last week's ISIS-claimed assault on two of their churches in Egypt try to 'continue with life'

A prayer service at St. Anthony’s church in Jerusalem, April 13, 2017.
Judy Maltz

Jerusalem’s Coptic Orthodox scouts had waited a long time to reinstate their beloved Holy Thursday ritual. And to think that it was almost canceled again.

Less than a week ago, when news broke that 45 members of their church had been massacred in Egypt, some had questioned the appropriateness of holding a festive drum procession so soon after the tragedy.

“We really didn’t know what to do,” relays Marina Sedrak, a member of the troup. “So we consulted with the patriarch, and he said we should hold the ceremony as planned. He told us we can’t stop life and we must continue living.”

But in recognition of the victims, the scouts decided to modify their original program. “In past years, we would take the procession out to the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem,” says Sedrak. “This year, we decided to limit ourselves to the Coptic Orthodox compound.”

Safwat Sedrak with his daughters Marina (left) and Miral, April 13, 2017.
Judy Maltz

The Coptic Orthodox Scout Troup of Jerusalem was established in 1949 but disbanded several years ago as membership shrank drastically. This year, thanks to a group of parents who grew up in the scouts and were not willing to bury this piece of their past, the troup was resurrected. 

The scouts are congregated early this morning in the Coptic compound courtyard, located on the roof of one of Christianity’s holiest sites – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is believed to have been buried and resurrected. Dressed alike in jeans and white button-down shirts, they help each other adjust their green-and-orange neckerchiefs and pose for a few obligatory photos before the procession begins. 

Amy Rafidia, a former scout, proudly points out her son, who is hoisting a flag in the distance. “Twenty years ago, when I was a scout, there were many many of us,” she recalls nostalgically. “But the fact that we could get a group like this together is also an achievement.”

The excitement of seeing this all come to fruition, she concedes, has been somewhat overshadowed by the Palm Sunday terror attacks. “We are very sad and worried about what is happening in Egypt,” she says. “But at the same time, Jesus tells us that we must bury the dead and continue with life.”

Christians are a small minority in the Holy Land, and the Copts are an even tinier minority among them. Locals estimate that about 350 Coptic Christians live in Jerusalem today, scattered around the eastern section of the city, and another handful live in the city of Nazareth up north. Most of those attending the Holy Thursday prayers at St. Anthony’s, the main Coptic church in Jerusalem, are not locals, but rather pilgrims from Egypt, where the overwhelming majority of Coptic Christians live.

Jacqueline Nassar, a member of the scouts, points out several worshippers emerging from the church dressed in long gray tunic dresses with tags around the necks. “Those tags are a sign they’ve traveled here from Egypt,” she notes. 

Like others asked to reflect on last Friday’s events, Nassar says she was appalled (“I mean you saw the pictures on TV – didn’t you?”) but at the same time refuses to succumb to grief. “It is important that we move on and not be angry,” she says.

It is the sentiment echoed by Brother Markos, a monk who serves as public liaison for the Jerusalem Coptic church. “We believe that all the victims are in a better place now,” he says.

Marina, whose father was born in Egypt, still has a grandmother there, as well as aunts, uncles and cousins. “Any time something happens there, the first thing I want to find out is where exactly, and whether or not it’s where I have relatives,” she says. Fortunately, she had no connection to any of the victims of last week’s attacks in Alexandria and the Nile Delta city of Tanta as her family is from Cairo.

A prayer service at St. Anthony’s church in Jerusalem, April 13, 2017.
Judy Maltz

As the patriarch exits the church, the scouts head out to greet him and kiss his hand, as is customary. He ascends the stairs to his residence, also located in the compound, where he will change into his ceremonial garb. In anticipation, the scouts begin to form lines and march in place, pounding their drums lightly. 

When the patriarch reappears a few moments later, he is dressed in an ornate maroon velvet cape embroidered in gold, a large ceremonial hat atop his head. With the scouts leading the way and beating their drums in unison, he crosses the courtyard back to the packed church, where the traditional washing of the feet ceremony will soon begin – a highlight of Holy Thursday for Coptic Christians.

While standing out in the courtyard during the service, Safwat Sedrak, Marina’s father, confesses that he is not a particularly active member of the church but helps out when needed. Born and raised in Cairo, he came Israel 20 years ago as a tourist and, after meeting his future wife right here at this very church, ended up staying. That hadn’t been their original plan, though, as he recounts.

“We had wanted to return to Egypt, but once I obtained Israeli citizenship, I needed a visa to travel back to Egypt and that became almost impossible once I was Israeli,” he says. “So we stayed one year, then another, the children were born, and as they say, life happens.”

Trained as a lawyer in Egypt, Sedrak works part time in his profession and part time as a security guard at the U.S. Consulate. All in all, he says, life hasn’t been too bad in his adopted homeland. “That doesn’t mean that I’m not often nostalgic for Cairo, for family and friends, and for just sitting in a café and listening to Umm Kulthum,” he says, referring to the legendary Egyptian singer.
 
Rafidia also appears to be dreaming of other places. Asked how she speaks English so fluently, she explains that she spent 10 years in Canada but had to return home to Jerusalem after her husband died. Is she happy to be back? She shrugs in response.