MAHOPAC, N.Y.— Nagi Wissa and his family awoke early on Palm Sunday to get ready for church when they heard the news. Two bomb blasts had struck Coptic churches in Egypt, killing 47 people as the country’s largest religious minority celebrated the holiday.
An explosion in the city of Tanta, about 56 miles north of Cairo, killed 29 and injured 71 as they prayed at the Mar Girgis church. A second blast struck the Egyptian port city of Alexandria three hours later, killing 18 and wounding 35.
The bombings were the latest in a series of attacks on Egypt’s Christian minority, who account for about 10 percent of the population and have been repeatedly targeted by Islamic extremists. It was ISIS that took responsibility for the Palm Sunday attacks.
Wissa, a native of Egypt and a Coptic Christian, is the owner of Lake Mahopac Pharmacy and a Somers resident. When he and his family got to their church that morning—St. Mary and St. Demiana Coptic Orthodox Church in White Plains—the terrorist attacks were on everyone’s minds.
“Everyone was upset; everyone was sad,” he said.
Wissa came to the U.S. in 1995 with his mother, father and sister. He attended St. John’s University where he got his pharmacy degree.
Coptic Christians are a minority in Egypt, a country with an 80 percent Muslim population. Wissa said it was difficult growing up there at times.
“There were prejudices; it’s uneasy to be a minority,” he said. “It was always a challenge, but our faith helped get us through it.”
He still has cousins, aunts and uncles back home and says he worries about their safety. He said after the Arab Spring in 2011, things improved in Egypt and he had high hopes. He remains optimistic, but says more changes need to come.
“They have been going in a positive direction, but there is not enough security, especially for non-Muslims,” he said. “I call upon the U.S. to urgently offer protection and perhaps asylum for Copts who are suffering in Egypt. We need to partner with the Egyptian government in a concerted effort to ramp up security, which guarantees safety for the Copts in Egypt.
Wissa said he believes ISIS is trying commit genocide in the Middle East.
“It is clear they are carrying on a campaign to ethnically cleanse the Middle East of both Christian Copts and Christianity in general,” he said.
“It’s obviously a major setback,” he said of the gains his home country had made in the wake of the Arab Spring, “but if you consider all the unrest in Middle East, Egypt has been one of the most stable countries in light of the ISIS uprising.”
He called the Palm Sunday attacks “unconscionable.”
“Egypt has had to fight ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula and has been doing that,” he said. But targeting Christians at their place of worship is a heinous crime. Whether it is [attacking] Muslims in a mosque or Jews in a temple, it doesn’t matter. These are crimes against humanity. Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was here visiting with [President] Trump, and one of the things they discussed was security and then he gets back and this thing happens.”
Wissa said that New York Coptic Diocese Bishop David has said that Easter celebrations will be canceled in honor of those who lost their lives in the attacks, limiting the holiday to just liturgical rites.
“They aren’t canceling ‘Easter,’” Wissa explained. “But we usually have a family celebration with food and exchanging presents, exchanging Easter baskets. And that’s what they’re canceling.”
The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is the largest Christian Church in Egypt, Northeast Africa and the Middle East. According to tradition, the Church was established by Saint Mark, an apostle and evangelist, in the middle of the 1st century.