At midnight every January 6th, Christmas Eve Mass ends and the early hours of Christmas Day begin for the Coptic Church in Egypt. As Orthodox Christians, descendants of Egypt's ancient Christianity that far outdates Islam, the Copts have to wait longer for Christmas festivities than those who celebrate on December 25. Perhaps to emphasize that the long-anticipated day has arrived, the Mass celebrating Christ's birth ends with the joyous ringing of bells as Egyptian Christians, dressed in their finest clothes, head home to continue their Christmas celebrations.
It is unusual for church bells to ring before midnight. But such was the case this past January 6, 2010, at Mar Yohana (St. John's) Church in Nag Hammadi, Upper Egypt, the town famous for the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels. The church's pastor, Bishop Anba Kirollos, was concerned by threats made against the Christians and decided to start Mass an hour early. At 11:00 P.M., church bells rang and worshippers streamed out the doors. It was a perfect time for an attack on the Christian community.
Three cars drove by the church and masked men with automatic weapons shot into the crowd, eyewitnesses later told the Middle East Christian Association (MECA). The cars then drove down three nearby side streets, shooting more Copts. Eight Christians were killed, six young church deacons instantly. A Muslim security guard was also killed, and many worshippers injured.
"The Muslims promised us a wonderful Christmas," one wounded parishioner told the Coptic News Bulletin, "I think the message is received now." All further Christmas celebrations were cancelled. In a moment's time, one of the most joyous days of the year for Christians was transformed into a day of horror and carnage. That was as much the goal of the Muslim gunmen as the actual shootings. Christian holy days and holy places are most often targeted. Just seven months before, Muslims in the village of Higaza opened fire on worshippers leaving an Easter Eve service, killing two young men and wounding a woman.
Bishop Kirollos believes he was the intended target of the attack. "I was the one intended to be assassinated by this plot, and when it failed the criminals turned round and started shooting and finishing off the young ones," Kirollos told MECA. He received death threats over the weeks before Christmas, and told reporters from Free Copts that the Muslims wanted to "dispose of him" because he had criticized the State Security for failing to protect Christians attacked by Muslims in November in several towns within the parish of Nag Hammadi.
The November attacks took place when a local 12 year-old Muslim girl was allegedly abducted and raped by a Coptic youth. The only detail that the girl gave identifying her attacker was that he wore a black jacket. Raping Muslim girls is not the common practice of Copts, and considering the vulnerability of Christians in Egypt, including serial abduction and rape of Christian girls by Muslim men, it would be not just evil, but incredibly stupid for a Christian to commit rape. More likely, blaming a Christian who, unfortunately, wore a black jacket, served as a good excuse for a desired November rampage.
On November 21, a mob of some 3000 gathered in front of the police headquarters in Farshoot, attempting to abduct the accused Copt before his trial. When they failed, they turned their violence on the Coptic community. The mob torched Christian-owned stores and attacked Christians in Farshoot and nearby villages Kom Ahmar, Shakiki and Ezbet Waziri. According to the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), several Coptic women were reportedly abducted by the mobs, and many people were injured, including a priest whose skull was fractured when the mob stopped his car and assaulted him. One witness said that Muslims threw some Coptic families out of their homes and were now occupying them.
"They want the Copts to be poor and therefore are destroying the Coptic economy in these areas," Wagih Yacoub of the Middle East Christian Association told AINA. By the evening of November 21st, all the Coptic businesses were looted and burned. Security forces did nothing to stop the mob. Witnesses said that the police just "watched the mob" and dispersed them from one street "only for them to appear in the next," according to AINA.
Bishop Kirollos was interviewed by Free Copts at the time of the attacks. He said that the violence was "definitely pre-planned," and revealed that many in the mob were students from the Al-Azhar Institute in Farshoot. They were "incited by their Dean who sent them out on a rampage against the Copts," he added. He said that even if the rape accusation was true, it was committed by one person and should not result in attacks on peaceful Christians who denounced this action "that does not comply with Christian teaching." He demanded to know why there were such "barbaric attacks by mobs" and why the security forces had not prevented them.
The November wreckage was not enough to satisfy the Islamists. Kirollos told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that some of his congregation had received cell phone calls threatening them that Muslims would "avenge the rape of the girl" during Christmas celebrations. And Kirollos received text messages telling him, "you're next." He asked the police to increase security for the church at Christmas, but they refused.
AINA reported that most of the witnesses of the killings believed that there was collusion between the shooters and the State Security. It was the first time that none of them attended the Christmas Eve midnight mass. "They must have known in advance of the shootings and avoided the embarrassment of participating in the festivities inside church," said one witness. Another witness told AINA, "Security came as everything was over, instead of trying to catch the criminals, they were interrogating us about the description of the cars."
Armed with descriptions of the vehicles and the suspects, Egyptian State Security worked quickly and efficiently to round up