So why did ISIS pick St. George's Church to strike in Egypt?
Terrorists struck two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday, killing at least 49 people at worship, and outraged the entire world.
ISIS claimed "credit" for the attack, unusually heinous both in lethality and in its demon-like rage against the sacred. Exorcists say an inability to tolerate the sight of anything sacred is a sign of demon possession. It might say something about ISIS.
It leads to the question of why they pick the targets they do. Terrorists are known for an obsession with signs and symbols – they like to strike on anniversaries, and they hit places of significance, whether for capitalism (World Trade Center) or power (the Pentagon, Westminster) or consumerism (airports, malls, cafés). They rely on mullahs and kiais and other "wise men" to justify their barbarism theologically as holy acts – otherwise, they'd just be engaging in garden-variety thuggery, and they know it. The imprimatur of the teachers is very important – which is why hate preachers are such fomenters of terror.
So one wonders whether the signs and symbols had anything to do with why they chose the two particular churches to attack this past Palm Sunday.
St. Mark's is an obvious one – it's the seat of the Coptic pope, who narrowly escaped the attack, and the persona of St. Mark himself, author of the oldest of the four Gospels, is the one the Copts follow. Copts are among the oldest of all the continuous Christian faiths, if not the very oldest.
It's St. George's Church in Tanta that draws my attention. Why did the terrorists pick St. George? It's not that common a name throughout the Coptic Church's 65 dioceses noted in Wikipedia – in fact, the name doesn't appear even once.
But the name George does mean something in the Middle East. St. George is a much hailed saint, not just in Christendom, but in Islam, too, particularly in the nations of the Near East – Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon. St. George is beloved in all of those lands, as he is in places as far away as England, Fiji, Spain, Romania, Germany, Russia, and beyond.
He's a historic figure whose legendary embellishments and pop star status have often covered up his real story. It's the real one that may offer a clue as to why ISIS hit that church that bears his name. A Roman soldier during the time of Emperor Diocletian born around 280 A.D., George was known for his bravery and competence, and when Diocletian announced he was killing all the Christians in his army, George refused to renounce his faith and was beheaded.
The most famous story of St. George, however, is that of how he slew the dragon. The story roughly goes that George had been traveling through the Levant when he heard of a tiny kingdom that had been plagued by a dragon (it was originally a crocodile) that had devoured all of its common livestock, particularly its sheep. It was threatening to destroy the entire village, so the kingdom came up with the idea of drawing straws and feeding it one of its sons or daughters at a time as a sacrificial offering until the beast got hungry again, leaving the hapless child as a sacrifice to save the entire village. One day, the short straw came up for the king's beautiful and beloved young daughter. The king protested, but the bureaucrats told him rules are rules, and the daughter would have to die. The girl was tied up and left in the swamp as the foul dragon approached. George was riding through by chance when he saw the terrified girl alone in the swamp and asked her what on Earth she was doing there. The girl told him the story. George recoiled in disgust and said it wasn't going to be like that – the whole idea was outrageous. He released the girl, confronted the dragon himself, nearly slew it in mortal combat, and then tied it up and hauled it off to the central square, where he could show it had been conquered. Eventually, he killed it. The king was so grateful that he offered his daughter's hand in marriage. George, who was chaste and pure in the emerging monastic tradition, chivalrously declined the offer and then asked that the kingdom be baptized in the name of Christ instead. The people agreed.
The moral of the story is that Christians have a duty to confront evil. The dragon slain is the embodiment of evil, and instead of continuously appeasing it, as the kingdom had done, George chose to fight it – and he was victorious.
Frankly, a story like that alone sounds like a threat to ISIS and its grotesque message.
The backstory may explain even more about why ISIS hates St. George. George was the son of Syrian Christians and remains beloved of both Christians and Muslims, particularly in Lebanon and Jordan. Muslims even name their children after St. George – the Arabic names are Jorj / Jūrj / Jirjis / Jurj / Jurayj, according to Wikipedia. St. George is beloved of both faiths. He's the strong horse who protects children.
Sound like what just happened in Syria? Yes.
And note Jordan, associated most closely with St. George, which supported President Trump's Syria raid. St. George's tomb is lovingly tended in the city of Lod, Palestine (or West Bank) in a joint Christian-Muslim church-mosque. Meanwhile, the St. George church in Madaba, Jordan, is one of the country's most archaeologically significant and considered a great cultural treasure in that country.
No wonder ISIS hates St. George so much. And perhaps that was the reason why ISIS chose to strike at that church.
It's unlikely that anyone on the National Security Council is going to be looking for this kind of symbolism, but the cultural knowledge is out there. Does ISIS care about cultural symbolism? Probably more than anyone recognizes. ISIS would have to hate what St. George means to the Middle East and everyone else. It's sad that his story is not better known or understood outside that region.
Post has been updated for casualties.