At 7:30pm on Saturday, many Copts tuned in to TV channels to watch the soft inauguration of the New Nativity of Christ Cathedral at the New Administrative Capital.
Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawdros II headed the Christmas mass at the cathedral, where President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi made an appearance to express felicitations for Coptic Christian Egyptians, who celebrate Christmas on 7 January.
“Of course I will watch for a short while before attending mass with my family and friends at the Mar Morcos Church [in Heliopolis]; of course it is a source of great joy for us to see a new large, beautiful cathedral being opened in Egypt,” said Darine, a 35-year-old banker.
Darine said that she finds the opening of this cathedral to be very significant, especially since it comes “at these very troubling times of so many attacks – not just physical but also verbal assaults in the media – against the Coptic citizens of this country.”
It shows, she added, that the state “at least feels it has a responsibility towards the Copts of this country; of course this does not make up for anything else, but I still think that it is very important that this cathedral is being opened now and that the president will be there himself.”
Since he took office in June 2014, President El-Sisi, who has enjoyed significant support from Copts in the wake of the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, has made a point of consistently attending Christmas mass.
“The first time he visited the cathedral was in January 2015. We were praying at the Virgin Mary Church in Ain Shams [eastern Cairo]. We got the news on the phone and we were so joyful; it was the first time ever for a president to attend Christmas mass,” said Samiyah, a 45-year-old nurse.
Coptic Christmas, which is celebrated on 7 January, was declared a national holiday in Egypt in 2005 by the government of Hosni Mubarak.
Unlike Easter, which goes against the dominant Muslim creed that does not acknowledge the crucifixion of Jesus, Christmas is acknowledged by the Muslim faith as the birth of the prophet of Christianity, not as the birth of the son of God.
In 2005, Gamal Mubarak, the younger and politically ambitious son of Hosni Mubarak, started attending Christmas mass at St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassiya, which was built in the 1960s in an initiative by then-president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, to the rejoicing of the church and worshipers alike.
“It was an important gesture from Mubarak to send his son, which we had all thought would be the next president, but Mubarak himself never came,” Samiya said.
She added that after the 2011 revolution, “we saw all presidential candidates attend mass, but still, when El-Sisi attended mass in 2015, it was the first time ever for a sitting president to join mass; this was big.”
Like Darine and other Copts who spoke to Ahram Online while preparing to celebrate Christmas, Samiya pointed to the recent attack by an Islamist terrorist on the Mar Mina Church in Helwan, where seven people died, including a poorly armed guard at the church entrance.
“Honestly, if there had been enough security measures, this would not have happened,” said Fady, a 28-year-old engineer.
According to Fady, security around most churches is insufficient.
“It is much better than it used to be, but in the face of all the anti-Coptic sentiment that we come across in society and in the media – both direct and indirect – the state should expect that this incitement would result in terror attacks,” Fady said.
However, what is even more hurtful for Fady and some other Copts is the recent incident in Atfih, a small village south of Cairo where Copts were attacked by Muslim neighbours last month for holding mass at a property that was not officially sanctioned for use as a church.
The grievance that many, if not most, Copts in Egypt have is the complications that surround obtaining permits to build churches.
Last week, acting Prime Minister Moustafa Madbouli held a meeting with the representatives of the Coptic, Catholic and Evangelical churches to discuss regulations on the matter.
“We have been hearing about this regulation for long; but I don’t think it will actually happen; I don’t think there is enough will on the part of the state to face the anger of radical Islamist groups – especially not this year, with the presidential elections coming up in March,” said Lina, a 19-year-old university student.
Lina said that for her, “it would have been much better for poor people all around the country to be able to have small neighbourhood churches where they can pray rather than have a large new cathedral in this very remote spot.”
Today, weekly Coptic newspaper Watani reflected on the mixed feelings that Copts have this Christmas.
While the paper published an article titled ‘Sisi makes good on his promise to celebrate Christmas this year at the new cathedral,’ an editorial on the front page by editor Youssef Sidhom, titled ‘A Christmas with the flavour of martyrs,’ lamented the continued loss of Coptic lives in terrorist attacks.
The fear of a possible massive attack was on the minds of over 15 Copts that spoke to Ahram Online Saturday.
Darine said she “would be lying” if she said that this fear was not on her mind, adding that she was praying for “the safety of the worshipers.”
“We hope we will not see one of the massive terror attacks on churches tonight; we are praying,” she said.