By Amy Penn
05/20/2017 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Ghattas Attallah wept as he recalled his son’s death. “The explosion occurred, the whole building shook, the glass smashed…I rushed to the place of the explosion, the church door, and I found my son, Girgis, lying on the ground on his back in a pool of blood with the palm [branches] he was selling mixed with his blood. The shrapnel of the bomb penetrated his brain.”
Girgis died last month in the doorway of St. Mark’s Church, one of the martyrs in the second of two Palm Sunday church bombings in Egypt. Around 12:00 p.m. on April 9, a suicide bomber walked through the gate at St. Mark’s and detonated his vest, just two hours after ISIS detonated an explosive device in St. George’s Church. At least 32 Christians were killed in the two attacks, dozens more injured, and hundreds of friends and family members left to grieve their loved ones.
We spoke with the families of Girgis, Sami, and Rauof one month after the bombings. Walking us through the day and their emotions, the families didn’t ignore their grief, but showed us how they entrust their sadness to God in exchange for strength, forgiveness, and peace.
The Saturday before Palm Sunday, Mariam, Instar, and Phebi, now widows, remembered several unusual events, events that miraculously protected family members. Phebi Georgy remembered that “there were wondrous arrangements from God…for example, [my husband] used to take our son Thomas with him to the church early in the morning. But he didn’t…I didn’t know why [my husband] didn’t want to take Thomas with him.”
These oddities worried Phebi, “I expected that this church would be bombed one day…I told Raouf [her husband and victim] that I feel that something would happen at the church tomorrow.” Intsar Basta, Sami’s widow, recollected how she was supposed to go to St. George’s Church, but “planned to attend the mass at another church with my sister [rather than go to my normal mass]” on Palm Sunday.
Mariam explained how her husband, Girgis, used to buy their daughter’s Easter clothes and cut his hair after Palm Sunday mass, but not this year. He did both of those tasks on Saturday which “was unusual and the first time he ever did that.” When Mariam asked Girgis why he purchased their daughter’s clothes and got his hair cut so early, he cryptically answered, “Tomorrow is the feast [Easter].” Mariam continued, “Yes, he was right, it was a feast for him because he went to heaven.”
Despite the premonitions and worrisome oddities on Saturday, Sunday seemed normal. Girgis, Sami, and Rauof’s families recounted the last time they saw their loved ones that morning and the horror of finding their bodies later.
Phebi reminisced that her husband, Raouf rose at 5:30 a.m., washed his face, put his clothes on, and left for church alone at 5:45 a.m. At 8:30 a.m., he called his wife to wake their children, dress them, and attend mass. A few minutes later, Phebi heard a “huge explosion,” her children shrieked “Papa, papa,” and she rushed to the church to find her husband.
“I felt that my husband was among those who [were] martyred, but at the same time I gave myself hope and said to myself that maybe he was injured.” She couldn’t find him scattered among the dead bodies in the church so she visited every hospital until “I found him in a morgue of a hospital.”
Ghattas told us how his son, Girgis, always sold palm branches with his father to churchgoers on Palm Sunday. Girgis spent all Saturday night at St. Mark’s to prepare the branches. On Palm Sunday, Ghattas remembered that “when we [Girgis and Ghattis] were at the church, we heard the news of the bombing of Mar Girgis [St. George’s] Church and the security forces guarding the Cathedral [St. Mark’s]…put the metal detector outside the entrance to the iron door of the church.”
They continued selling branches together until Ghattis left to greet Pope Tawadros. That greeting saved his life because shortly after he left, an explosion rocked St. Mark’s Church. Ghattis returned to find his son lying dead in the doorway.
Girgis’ wife, Mariam, was leaving another mass when she heard that St. Mark’s had been bombed and “she ran crying in the street” to the church. Neither her father-in-law nor her husband answered their phones and she feared the worst. After frantically searching the church for bodies, Mariam finally found her husband in a hospital morgue. What would she tell Demiana, their daughter? “I couldn’t say to her that her father died…”
Sami’s wife, Instar, was at mass when she overheard several girls next to her on a cellphone talking about a bombing at St. George’s. She called her sons, Peter and Paula, asking them to find their father. While they searched, she waited impatiently outside.
Peter left the church to tell his mother that Sami was nowhere to be found, but not before witnessing the complete horror. “I saw an unspeakable sight, the situation was terrible, there were many bodies…many body parts and many injured…but I didn’t find my father.” Telling his brother and mother to go home, he began searching the hospitals and, just like Phebi, “was shocked when I found my father was laying on the first bed of the morgue.”
As we continued talking with the families, we asked them about the spiritual and emotional impact that Palm Sunday had on them. They lost fathers, brothers, and sons. They watched as their churches were destroyed. They saw their neighbors and friends’ bodies scattered throughout a sanctuary of peace. They still live in danger of persecution. They deserved to be bitter and to hate, but they don’t. In part two, we will show their humbling and challenging responses.