On the Via Dolorosa, Christians react to a rise in Islamic militant attacks
JERUSALEM – On Good Friday, down the ancient warren of cobblestone streets inside the walls of the Old City, Christians from every corner of the world process along the Via Dolorosa, or “The Way of Sorrow.”
Good Friday marks the holy day of remembrance when Jesus was sentenced to death and crucified, and it comes before the celebration of Easter Sunday, when Christian faith holds that Jesus rose from the dead and will come again.
The somber processions along the traditional Stations of the Cross here are always emotional for the faithful. But this year the bombing attacks on two Coptic Christian churches that killed 45 people just five days ago on Palm Sunday seemed to make this year even more resonant and meaningful. The so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings, which are the latest in a spate of attacks by Islamic militants on the Christian minority in the Middle East’s largest country.
On this day, we feel the pain of Jesus on the cross, and the pain of those who are suffering like the Copts in Egypt.
Pentecostal Christian from Indonesia
Christians from all over the world said they were praying for and marching in solidarity with the community of Egypt’s Coptic Church, which is one of the oldest in Christendom, founded by St. Mark the Evangelist who came to Egypt in 60 AD. And many of the pilgrims marching here in Jerusalem were hailing from countries that know first hand the destructive power of religious violence, including Serbia, Indonesia, Lebanon, Ethiopia and beyond.
Security was heightened in and around the Old City on Friday and through the Easter weekend after a 20-year-old British exchange student in Jerusalem was killed Friday in a stabbing attack, the latest in a reported wave of attacks by Palestinian militants over the last 18 months that have taken the lives of 40 Israelis and two foreigners.
Abate Tsadik, on pilgrimage from Ethiopia, wearing the red cap donned by his Ethiopian Orthodox tour group, said, “In our country, we don’t have direct violence between Muslims and Christians yet. Not yet, but we fear it is coming,” he said.
He was referencing last year’s killing of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in Libya by the so-called Islamic State, a mass execution that was captured on video and viewed around the world.
“The fanatics want to divide us. They know exactly what they are doing,” he said, “and we must not let them succeed.”
Father Nenand Kesonja, dressed in the traditional black clerical garb of the Syrian Orthodox tradition was leading a pilgrimage from his Croatian village of Vukovar which suffered some of the most fierce fighting of the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, said, “We know about religious violence.”
“And on this day especially, our fervent prayers are for peace. We pray for our Christian brothers in Egypt and we pray that the whole country understands how vicious the cycle of religious violence can become,” said Kesonja.
A Pentecostal Christian from Indonesia, Frans Limantony, 39, said he came on pilgrimage with his wife because he wanted “to know this place.”
“I only knew it from the bible, and I wanted to see the reality and be here to pray on Good Friday and celebrate on Easter,” said Limantony, a salesman from Jakarta, after saying prayers at the Stations of the Cross.
“On this day, we feel the pain of Jesus on the cross, and we feel the pain of those who are suffering like the Copts in Egypt. As Christians we cannot tolerate that violence, not in Egypt or in the many other places like Libya and Syria, and even in some corners of my own country where Christians are targeted,” said Limantony, referring to the spate of church bombings and attacks ordered in recent years by militant Islamic clerics in Indonesia, which is more than 90 percent Muslim.
The sorrow of Christians in the Middle East is no different than the sorrow all people, Muslims and Jews alike, feel at the violence that surrounds them. But Christians, as a minority faith, in the Arab world are often targeted. And so amid the violence and the economic hardship that comes with it, the Christian presence is diminishing in the land where the faith began, as Christians migrate to the West.
In Syria and Iraq, Christian minority communities have been brutalized and slaughtered by ISIS. In other countries like Lebanon and Jordan, decades of war in the region created a steady flow of migrants to Europe and America and left the communities shrinking year after year. So I asked some of the Egyptian pilgrims on “The Way of Sorrow” if they were fearful for the future.
“We are not afraid,” said Father Luka Nasrallah, 47, an Egyptian Catholic priest, who was leading a pilgrimage from his hometown of Sohag, an industrial center in Egypt.
Nasrallah said he felt the solidarity of the many pilgrims from around the world on this Good Friday, but he said he wanted the world to know that while life is difficult for Egyptians, they “do not and will not live in fear.” He said the community was traumatized but that it would carry on as it has through centuries of martyrdom which, as he pointed out, began with the very origins of the church in the earliest centuries of Christianity.
Standing with a large wooden cross that his fellow parishioners had carried on the Via Dolorosa, he said, “We are ready to meet with Jesus and this day, Good Friday, is especially a day not to be afraid.”