Peace -- it's the first thing you notice as you approach the "Coptic cathedral" in Manhattan, on the Upper East Side. St. Mary and St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church is located in a former Roman Catholic church by the name of Our Lady of Peace. It was almost stunning to see the word "Peace" on a sign outside the church, one day after almost 50 Coptic Christians were killed in Palm Sunday attacks in Egypt. Also, it was consoling, even hopeful -- even if the temptation to believe peace a lost cause creeps in.
The second thing you notice are the open doors. Again, a surprise. Given what had happened the day before, I expected police and barricades, and possibly locked doors. It was Monday of Holy Week, approaching noon, and there were about a dozen people praying. I wasn't the only person who had made a pilgrimage of prayer and solidarity. We visitors couldn't have been made to feel more welcome -- people offered me a book, showing me what page they were on in weeklong prayers. Other people came by wanting to offer a donation for the churches in Egypt. Tourists made quick stops.
The Coptic Christians are a people not all that well known in the West, and yet here they were, a spiritual shot in the arm to a city and a church in transition. It is no secret that the Roman Catholics in the city are closing schools and churches. A beautiful new life could be seen in this church, recently leased to the Coptic Christians. During some of the holiest days of the Christian church year, there seemed to be a healing happening. Divisions -- and foreignness -- seem to be lessened in both practical and mystical ways as people prayed together. On Good Friday, Cardinal Timothy Dolan headed to the church to offer his own act of prayerful solidarity. What fitting unity in the face of suffering, both of Christ's and the persecuted Church's in Egypt.
One under-reported fact is that on Palm Sunday, terrorists in Egypt tried to kill the Coptic pope, Tawadros II. ISIS has targeted everyone from Pope Francis to Libyan laborers who refuse to renounce their belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ, desiring to rid the world of Christians. This should be a big deal, it should shock us, but we're too distracted by everything else. We must renew our insistence on religious liberty and real tolerance -- where people who don't really know or understand each other can stand side by side in acknowledgment of common humanity.
Preaching shortly after the attacks, Bishop Angaelos, general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, talked about the power that the persecuted do possess: "People invade our spaces, our lives and our churches, but they must never invade our hearts." With the attacks in Egypt in mind, he urged that this not be just another Holy Week. He urged that Christians open their hearts to a God who knows betrayal and who forgives in the face of it. That doesn't always happen here on Earth, needless to say. Christians can be some of the worst Christians -- examples of God -- in the world.
"I must love, even if I do not trust," Bishop Angaelos said. "I must be prepared to forgive." Don't let it just be a "cliche," he said. "Don't dismiss this as your annual Palm Sunday sermon."
And while it may be easy to dismiss words, it's harder to dismiss people who died simply gathering to pray. Or at least it should be.
This Holy Week, let's remember their example, and honor them by working to promote more peaceful hearts, conversations, social media interactions -- and maybe even a more peaceful world.
Kathryn Jean Lopez