Tanta After the Bombing: The Quiet City is No More

Tanta After the Bombing: The Quiet City is No More

Medhat Moussa, 63, woke up early on the morning of Palm Sunday. He quickly got dressed and set off to find a front-row seat at the Church of St. George, the largest church in Tanta.

His wife, Nabila, took a bit longer to get ready, so they left shortly after eight. Though he kept reproaching her, she said it is not necessary to sit in their usual place....

They were accustomed to having their bags searched as they entered through the narrow church door with the metal detector. Yet, they were surprised to find the security men allowing them in without searching the bags.

As the clock pointed to 8:30, the couple entered the church. Moussa was happy to find an empty seat at the front. But his joy wouldn’t last long, and shortly thereafter, the “quiet city” would be flung into chaos.

The Explosion

At 9:05 am, a blast struck the church. Rows of seats were torn from the floor, leaving nothing behind them but the smell of blood and body parts streaked across the church walls.

Four days later, Nabila, sitting in her home, can still remember everything. She also remembers her husband—how he would complain about their limited income, after years of retirement from his job as a Major in the Egyptian Armed Forces.

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On the eve of the bombing, they were making plans to secure the future of their two sons.

Nabila also vividly recalls running around the church looking for her husband. She ran frantically, until she glimpsed his shirt under a rug. She took a closer look, only to find a part of his arm and legs. His head was nowhere to be found.

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The Quiet City

Tanta was never known as a city of violence, nor were its residents accustomed to seeing much action in their day-to-day lives.

“The quiet city”, as it’s been nicknamed, is the capital of the Gharbeya governorate in the heart of the Nile Delta, roughly 93 kilometers north of Cairo.

About half a million people live in Tanta, only 10% of whom are Christians, according to the estimates provided by the governor of Gharbeya, Ahmed Dief, in a telephone interview with Raseef22.

Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher in Coptic affairs, says the Christians of Tanta are not immigrants; they have been living there since the first century, particularly after the Coptic State settled in north and central Egypt.

Shrines for All Faiths

Tanta is also known for producing moulid sweets. Moulids are uniquely Egyptian Islamic holidays, celebrating the births of various saints and prophets with traditional rites and sweets.

Moreover, Tanta draws together monuments of both Islam and Christianity. There is the famous Sayyid al-Badawi Mosque, as well as the St. George Church, built after a decree was issued by King Fuad in 1934.

Constructed out of wood in 1939, the first prayers in the church were held on Palm Sunday of that year. The wooden structure remained intact for 15 years. In 1940, Bishop Thomas of Beheira, Gharbeya, and Kafr El Sheikh, laid the cornerstone for the cathedral.

Construction work on the cathedral was suspended until 1945 due to the World War II. In 1952, the church was sanctified by Bishop Yoannis.

"Security Has Done Nothing But Check Out the Girls"

Today, there are 12 churches in Tanta, though building new churches was never an easy task. Khairy Salama, 70, says Copts confront various obstacles whenever they wish to build a new church.

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Egypt’s Coptic minority has long suffered the difficulties of building prayer sites, due to an unequal law that regulates the building of churches, imposing tough restrictions on the construction of new Christian establishments.

Salama, among others, however explains that the major issue is not building churches, but rather building a nation that is capable of putting an end to attacks on Christians.

Several Copts said that recently they found hate speech graffitied on the back wall of the church, reading: "We will kill you." However, security did nothing to address these threats, despite the numerous complaints.

Another local Copt, Mubarak Moussa, says a young man tried to sneak into the Church of the Virgin after midnight, claiming to be a priest. The next day, worshippers found offensive writings on one of the walls.

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"Security does nothing but check out the girls," Mariam Tadros, 27, tells Raseef22. She notes that the attacks will follow them wherever they go. "If we pray at home, we will be attacked," she said. "The problem in not within the churches, but within the minds that hate us."

The City is Not the Same

The quiet city is no more. Tensions and suspicions have settled in the hearts of its residents. The area surrounding the church is overwhelmed by police presence. Checkpoints and patrols have filled the city since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared martial law on the night of the blast.

Drivers talk about arrest campaigns targeting young students for simply attending rallies or lectures.

In a small street close to the church, Abanoub Adel, 25, sits in his lathing workshop, refusing to stay at his house after the departure of one of his neighbors and friends. "We live in ruins," he says.

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Adel explains that many of his close friends died in the blast, while others will live disabled for the rest of their lives.

He notes that there were barriers set up before the bombing, adding that security personnel can generally recognize the Christians who attend the church, and usually stop those who look unfamiliar.

Every year, Christians attended the mass and prayers, chanted their hymns, and marked the beginning of Easter with joy and celebrations. "This year, Easter is different," Adel says.

Further, he tells Raseef22 that Copts no longer trust the security forces and their measures for protecting worshippers.

Every night since the funeral, the security forces depart, leaving behind only the barriers and two officers. "They wait for disasters to happen before taking any actions," he added.

A Previous Bomb

Two weeks before the incident, security officers found an explosive device next to the same church. After defusing it, they told the people that it was nothing but a pack of pens.

But Abanoub Girgis, 27, says he saw the bomb itself, which, for him, meant that the security forces were just trying to reassure them.

As Easter approaches, Copts are holding out on the hope that there will not be another attack, relying on the security forces to keep them safe.

Girgis and his family will attend the mass service and prayers in other churches, or at the entrance of the bombed church. However, this time, they will be protected by Christian youth, not officers and soldiers.

Manal, who lives close to the church, disagrees. She says that the security forces must be there, voicing her concern over the possibility of an even bigger crisis in the coming days.

Amid successive attacks over the past years, much of the Coptic community has lost faith in the state’s ability—or willingness—to protect them. Anger has progressively mounted among a community that has thus far previously taken a strategic decision to remain peaceable.

A Nightmare at the Morgue

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Although Nabila and her two sons and daughter recognized Medhat's body, they could not prove his identity, especially after the prosecutor told them that the authorities suspect that the body belongs to the suicide bomber.

At 2:30 pm, the prosecution asked them to run a DNA test to match the result with one of the sons.

They were supposed to receive the result one hour after, but when they went to the Forensic Medical Authority at 7:00 pm, they did not even find a record of the name of the son on the expected samples results. The ran the test again, waited for the result, and the body was confirmed as belonging to his father, Medhat Moussa.

The family then obtained a burial permit and went to the university hospital. There, they found all the victims shrouded on the floor, and left there for more than 10 hours.

At the beginning, the wife and the family were prevented from attending the funeral, until some of them were allowed in, according to Nabila.

The moment she found the body at the church will never leave her, Nabila says. She notes that she had two wishes. The first was to attend the entire funeral, and the second was to see his face before the burial. Security officers prevented her from the first, while the deformation of the body from the blast made it impossible for her to fulfil the second.

Ahmed Fathi is a freelance journalist and writer, with an interest in social and humanitarian issues.

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