The Gospel writers describe how crowds of excited followers, including many children, welcomed Jesus’ entry into their city by laying palm branches across his path. Last Sunday, all around the world and still following this ancient tradition, little children marched up the aisles of local churches proudly carrying similar green foliage.
The excited children of a Christian Coptic church in the Egyptian city of Tanta were taking a joyous part in this same ritual when the suicide bomber suddenly struck. Newspaper accounts of this atrocity described in gory detail how their palm branches, now broken and blood spattered, were scattered across the floor amid the bodies of 27 murdered worshippers. Another 78 Coptic Christians were wounded.
It was the second blast, this time at the ancient city of Alexandria, which drew more attention to the “plight of the suffering church.” Although fewer were murdered in this bombing also claimed by ISIS (17 died) the symbolism of the attack was instantly evident to any scholar of church history.
Alexandria is home to the largest church in the entire Middle East. Its Christian population dates back to around 150 AD when, according to tradition, the Apostle Mark founded the first place of worship in that city. Over the following centuries Alexandria became the centre of theological debate and a forum for Christian scholars from across the Middle East to gather and discuss critical issues, including whether or not Jesus was truly Divine.
In 639 AD, the city was conquered by invaders carrying the banner of a new religion called Islam. Even so, It took another six centuries before the population finally attained a Muslim majority.
Many Westerners assume that Christianity was only recently planted by zealous missionaries in predominantly Muslim countries across the Middle East. Within that assumption one could find the belief that it is only reasonable for Islam to resent and reject these interlopers.
Facts cry out loudly against this faulty conclusion. Large and thriving Christian communities in Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and other now-Muslim nations predated the conquering arrival of Islam.
Persecution of the Church has been well documented through the following centuries. A Genocide beginning in 1915 killed an estimated 15 million Armenian Christians in Muslim Turkey. In recent decades many Christians have been forced to flee from communities where their ancestors have lived for many hundreds of years. One especially tragic story is that of the Christians in Mosul, Iraq. Most have fled the onslaught of ISIS or were murdered before they could escape. Even in United Nations camps they have feared further persecution from radical Muslim refugees.
Headlines have captured the recent horror of extremist attacks by car or bomb against civilian populations in Stockholm, Brussels and Saint Petersburg. While no one would minimize these atrocities, each was essentially a “lone wolf” assault by radicalized Muslims.
By contrast, the Palm Sunday massacres of Coptic Christians was a cleverly coordinated attempt by a well-entrenched Muslim extremist group to begin the eradication of an entire community -- one which only wishes to worship in peace.
A pessimist could conclude that there is no future for Christianity in the Middle east, given these now-overwhelming Muslim majorities, including many who are hostile toward the followers of Jesus. An optimist could point out that, historically, many Muslims have lived in peace with their Christian neighbours. The several police officers who died trying to defend the Coptic churches presumably were also Muslim.
Easter Sunday is always about hope and renewal, a victory against evil, a triumph of life over death---maybe one day even in the troubled Middle East. Little children anywhere in our world will once again carry Palm branches without fear of persecution.
Meantime, sadly, I am not holding my breath. I do not know what this world is coming to!
(With thanks to Rev. Bob Johnston, rt'd. for his contribution)