LOS ANGELES – Helena Botros looked forward to breaking her 40-day holiday fast on Thursday, the traditional Christmas Eve date for Coptic Christians, and gathering with family after a midnight liturgy to feast and exchange gifts.
A New Year's Day bombing that killed 21 worshippers at a Coptic Christian church in Egypt, the home of her faith, changed that. Botros, a 25-year-old community college professor, planned to spend the holiday in prayer and will donate money that would have been spent on gifts to the victims' families.
"It's making me so grateful for the opportunity to go to church on Jan. 6 at night and celebrate the miracle of the Eucharist without fear of being bombed," said Botros, who came to the U.S. with her parents in 1988. "It's making me want to pray and fast and do everything in my power to live this holiday as the greatest gift of all."
The Jan. 1 bombing at Saints Church in Alexandria has shocked Egyptian Christians living in the U.S., many of whom fled Egypt to escape what they say is religious discrimination in the majority Muslim nation. Coptic churches dot the American landscape, with large communities in California, New Jersey, the Midwest and Florida.
American religious leaders from New Jersey to California declared days of additional fasting and prayer after the bombing and canceled the concerts, children's plays, receptions and feasts that traditionally mark Coptic Christmas, which falls on Jan. 7.
One church near Orlando hired security for Christmas Eve and decided to check all cars coming to services that night after a conversation with sheriff's officials. Other worried about further attacks in Egypt, where they have friends and family.
Last year, six Christians and a Muslim guard were killed in a drive-by shooting in southern Egypt on Coptic Christmas Eve and many U.S. worshippers were preparing to commemorate that event when they got word of the bombing, said Rev. Joseph Boules, a priest at St. Mary and St. Verena in Anaheim.
"I pray to God that nothing else happens on that night," said Boules, who is filming a TV program for the church's TV network to memorialize the 2009 shooting. "People's wounds are not closed yet. Christmas is a huge celebration in our church, but these events overshadow this joy which we should be celebrating."
In Egypt, the bombing touched off three days of protests involving clashes with both security forces and Muslim passers-by in the area around the church in Alexandria. Christians there complain bitterly of religious discrimination and accuse the government of not confronting rising conservative Islamic prejudice in society.
Egyptian government officials say Muslims and Christians are treated equally. After the bombing, President Hosni Mubarak blamed foreigners for the attack. Security officials said police are looking at the possibility that homegrown Islamic extremists were behind it, and perhaps were inspired by al-Qaida though not directly under foreign command.
The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church split from other Christians in 451 A.D. over a dispute about the nature of Christ. It celebrates Christmas according to the Julian calendar, meaning it falls on Jan. 7.
The run-up to the holiday is marked by a 40-day period of fasting when red meat, poultry and dairy products are forbidden. Copts break the fast with feasting and celebrations after a Christmas Eve liturgy that ends near midnight.
Now, Copts in America say they feel helpless and frustrated as they watch Christians in Egypt struggle to worship while they enjoy religious freedom. Strong cultural and religious bonds tie American Copts to their homeland: Many return frequently to visit family and some priests split the year between congregations in Egypt and the U.S.
Phoebe Farag, a consultant in New Jersey who is married to a Coptic priest, said she forced herself to watch grainy video footage of the New Year's Day blast but had to stop when she saw a woman about her age stumbling toward the door searching frantically for her mother.
"I watched 10 seconds and started crying and all I could think about was, 'That could have been me.' That church was singing the same hymn that we sing in our services and there they get bombs and are looking for their family members and finding them in pieces," Farag said. "I was just shaken."
Coptic Orthodox Church Network: http://www.copticchurch.net/
Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles: http://www.lacopts.org/
Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States: http://suscopts.org/