“It was a morning after a stormy night, and I was standing on the beach near the wreck of a ship that had sunk the night before. I asked one of the sailors standing on the beach how many had died. He asked me, ‘Have you surrendered your life to our Lord Jesus Christ?’ I smiled at the question and said, ‘Thank God.’”
Ibrahim Youssef, 50, relayed this story to his Sunday school students at their village church in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Sohag, several days before he embarked on a family trip to the neighboring Minya Governorate. He looked at the sky for a moment, then told them that he and his relatives were going to the Coptic Orthodox Monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor, also known as the Monastery of the Virgin Mary at Mount Qalamoun, on Friday. He asked them to pray for him. “I felt that something awful would happen, so I kept asking my children and students to pray for us,” the teacher says.
Ibrahim, who had years of experience overseeing trips from churches in Sohag to various monasteries across the country, left the church that day feeling like he was surrounded by the prayers of his students.
On Thursday evening, Ibrahim left with his family to the St. Samuel Monastery, but he felt trepidation ahead of the journey. That same monastery was the site of a deadly attack in May 2017, when armed militants attacked a bus traveling on the road leading to it, killing 28 Coptic Christians, most of whom were children, and injuring 26 others.
“My family told me to come with them on the trip. I was worried, but I was also concerned they would think I was a coward,” he recounts.
The bus Ibrahim and his family were traveling on arrived at the break of dawn, carrying 30 visitors from Sohag, including children and infants. “We left Sohag at 10 pm and arrived at 5 am, when it was still quite dark. We felt scared while in the church, because there were no security checkpoints around, or additional security guards stationed at the church gate,” he recalls.
The Sunday school teacher begins to weep. He gathers himself long enough to say that there were infants less than four months old on the bus. “We were elated that there were infants with us who would be baptized at the church and be blessed by the martyrs. But we didn’t know that we too would become martyrs,” he says.
But once inside the St. Samuel Monastery, the atmosphere was calm and everyone was praying. “As soon as we entered, we headed to the shrine for the martyrs from last year’s attack and began praying for them,” he says. These prayers continued until someone asked, “Do you think we will have a place among the martyrs here?”
Another visitor responded, “We have given our life to martyrdom.”
On Friday afternoon, Ibrahim and the group completed the rites and were guided back to the bus and private car in which they arrived. They were followed by vehicles belonging to another group visiting the monastery from Minya. The route to the monastery has always been described as “rugged,” according to Ibrahim.
“The buses were driving along the road when four masked assailants in four-wheel drives appeared and opened fire on us,” he recounts.
Dust had been kicked up around the vehicles as they drove along the unsealed road, obscuring vision, so passengers did not see when armed gunmen pulled up beside them. “All of a sudden,” he says, “bullets were flying at us from every direction.”
“They opened fire, but our driver managed to drive away and none of the attackers reached us in their vehicles. They tried to chase us on foot but couldn’t catch up to us. They did, however, manage to reach the other buses with visitors from Minya.”
We heard the people on the other buses shouting, “Save us, St. Samuel!” Their cries resonated for several kilometres in the desert, but the sound did not reach the security forces stationed inside the monastery. Victims were also unable to contact anyone by phone either, because of poor communication signals on the roads and near the monastery.
Seven people were killed and 20 others from Minya were injured in the attack.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement released on Friday evening by its media arm, the Amaq News Agency. In a second statement attributed to the militants, in which a higher death toll of 13 is cited, the group purported that the motive for the attack was to avenge the imprisonment of “our chaste sisters.”
Ibrahim says his memory of the attack is fuzzy, and that he recalls only snippets of what happened. He came to after the ambush to scenes of injured family members and news of those killed on the buses that had followed them on the road back from the St. Samuel Monastery. The Sunday school teacher spent the night after the attack with other churchgoers from his village, who had difficulty coming to terms with what had happened. They kept repeating one sentiment: “We’ve had enough. They either protect us, or get rid of us.”