MINYA, Egypt — The last time I had visited the Saint Samuel Monastery in my hometown of Minya, I was a boy. Minya is 152 miles south of Cairo and has Egypt’s highest concentration of Coptic Christians, who make up almost 10 percent of the population.
When I was young, we used to organize trips to the monastery. I went once with my church, then Christian friends in college and another time with my family.
Every Christian in Upper Egypt, especially in Minya, has visited this monastery at least once. It’s a beautiful place of prayer but also a historical site.
The monastery was founded in the fourth century, repeatedly attacked by the Berbers between 450 and 635 AD, raided by the Arabs between 859 and 880 AD, then alternating between abandonment and rebuilding for generations before settling into full-time use in the present day.
The drive there is epic – you can never forget it. You take an unpaved rough path – the only connection between the highway and the monastery, 15 miles deep inside the desert.
Around six miles inside the desert, you begin to lose mobile connection. And that’s exactly where the ISIS attack last month took place.
Dressed as soldiers, gunmen waved down a bus of Christian pilgrims and ordered them off the bus. They then killed 29 people, each with a single shot to the head. Survivors ran almost a mile for service to call for help.
Christians in Egypt are no strangers to these tragic events, especially in the last year. There has been an escalation of sectarian violence targeting the minority that has left more than 100 people dead since December. I’ve photographed the aftermath of almost all the attacks. It’s never easy. It only gets harder.
The day after the attack, I drove the path to the site, the first time I had been on this road in years. There were three of us in the car, all frightened by the sight of any cars on our path. Could they be a terrorist coming to attack us? You can’t stop your mind from thinking this way anymore. We constantly felt like there was no security, no protection.
Soon, we saw the big gate of the monastery with Monk Angelous and Monk Boules waiting outside. They were holding walkie-talkies, the only way to communicate with other monks inside the complex.
“The path here is more rough and unsafe than I remember,” I told Monk Boules. “Haven’t you asked the government to help pave it?”
“Of course, we did! But nothing happened. And they know how many visitors we receive.”
Such is standard in Egypt. While the government and security forces vow to protect the Christian minority, little is done. Promises are made after tragedies and rarely followed through.
Monk Boules was still shaken. He was the first on the scene of the attack.
“You can see the dead corpses all around you but also there were also a lot of injuries,” he explained, holding back tears. “Why would a person decide to kill a child, why an innocent soul?”
He took us into the church in the monastery where the funeral had just taken place.
In 2011, the head of the monastery asked them to build the church and name it “Martyrs Church.” In a sad fit of irony, seven of the 29 martyrs from last week’s attack were buried there.
“If we to choose between Jesus or death, we will choose Jesus because this is our belief and our faith,” Monk Boules explained. “But it doesn’t mean we want to die in attacks. Life is a gift from God. People should know that Christianity loves life.”
I heard the same in April, when I reported with GroundTruth Middle East correspondent Lauren Bohn on the orchestrated ISIS bombings of two churches. Christians kept asking: will we be next? With the attack in Minya, 29 of them were.
This is life now in Egypt. When the attacks first happened, we were saying it was something far away from us, something in the villages, something remote, but the violence gets closer and closer with every attack. Being a Christian now means you are a target no matter what.
After a long day at the monastery, I made the way back to the highway. Every minute I looked at my phone, waiting to get a signal. When I finally did, I felt a surge of relief like I had been on the brink.
Indeed, we all are. One never knows if he could be next.