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By Sandra Elliot

12/20/2016 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – St. Mark’s Cathedral was especially full on December 11, 2016 as Sunday’s mass aligned with a public holiday celebrating Islam’s esteemed prophet, Muhammad. As Fr. Antonios Mounir was opening the communion service, a deafening blast rocked the Cairo church. By the close of the day, 25 lives would be lost.

“I knew most of the victims,” Fr. Mounir said to International Christian Concern (ICC). “They were constantly attending masses and prayers in the church and they had good relationships with God.”

The Cairo bombing was the deadliest attack on Egyptian Christians in recent history. The suicide bomber activated a device containing at least 26 pounds of TNT in the women’s seating area of the church. The Islamic State branch in Egypt would later claim responsibility for the deadly attack.

ICC’s Egyptian representative was recently able to meet up with church attendees, many of whom lost loved ones in the attack.

“This has not weakened us,” Raymond Wadih explained to ICC. “On the contrary, this gives us more love for our country than before and we will not leave Egypt. We were born here, we grew up here and we will die here.”

Raymond and his family never miss Sunday mass. On December 11, he attended with his wife, three children, and parents. Raymond and his father sat to the left in the men’s pews, while his wife and mother and children sat on the right side of the cathedral hall.

I was focusing on the prayer of mass when the huge explosion shook the building,” he explained.

Raymond and his father spent the rest of their day searching for family in the church ruins and hospital rooms. Raymond considers himself lucky to have only lost one family member to the terrorist attack.

“While I looked for the rest of my family, I found my mom laying on the ground,” Raymond recounted to ICC. “Her eyes were open and looking to heaven, her mouth was open and she wasn’t moving.”

When the Islamic State terrorist detonated his suicide vest, the ceiling of the cathedral hall collapsed on the women and children seated below. According to Tony Takla, a church member and deacon, the suicide bomber visited St. Mark’s the evening before the fateful attack.

“We had just finished with a prayer meeting and were standing by the front door when a man carrying a black case came towards us,” Tony told ICC. “He said he was [a] Muslim hoping to learn about Christianity…he asked us to allow him to enter the church to see the church from the inside and to meet any one of the church’s priests.”

Tony and the others informed the man that the church was closed and locked, though they invited him to return for the following day’s mass.

We recognized this person when President al-Sisi announced about him and when we saw his photo [on the news],” Tony explained.

Mahmoud Shafiq Mohammed Mustafa, 22, was named by President al-Sisi as the perpetrator of the church bombing. Mustafa had a long history of affiliation with the ousted Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo.

“One of the important features of the Coptic Church is it is a church of martyrs,” Fr. Michael Fahmy of St. Mark’s Cathedral told ICC. “We still present martyrs everyday…victims who are killed only because they are Christians.”

It’s hard to imagine this fate in our safe homes and mega-churches, but Christians in Egypt expect and accept martyrdom.

“To my martyred sister I say, ‘I love you so much and I want to be like you.’ To you who killed my sister I say, ‘We are ready for martyrdom,” Amad Saad Aziz told ICC. His sister, Amany was among the 25 killed in Cairo on December 11.

Grandparents, mothers, wives and children were all among the rubble of the ruined St. Mark’s hall. Twenty-five souls lost to this world because of hatred, and nothing else. Yet the Christian community of Egypt is one of strength, resilience, and forgiveness.

While many have taken to the streets to protest the incident and demand equal protection for minorities living in Egypt, many have also taken on the likeness of Christ during this trying time.

“I want to send a message to those that killed my wife,” Wagdy Anis told ICC. “I forgive him, and I pray for him and the people who are like him. That God may lighten their minds and open their vision.”

The future is not yet bright for Christians living in Egypt. They are likely to face many more instances of injustice and persecution. So please pray for justice, pray for endurance, and pray for peace.