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Sunday, 12 July 2020

On Coptic Christmas, Egypt's Christians voice guarded hope for future

Despite instances of sectarian incitement by certain radical Islamist preachers, Egypt's Christians celebrate Coptic Christmas this year amid 'unprecedented' warmth on the part of their Muslim compatriots

Dina Ezzat, Monday 7 Jan 2013
Church of Holy Family and Saint George, the only Coptic Church in Rafah, attacked by unknowns on 28 January, 2011 during the Egyptian revolution (Photo: Reuters)
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The reported failed attack on a church in Rafah on Monday, coinciding with Coptic Christmas, is not the kind of news that Father Mikhail wanted to wake up to.

"It's very sad that our church is still under attack and that Coptic families of Rafah are still being threatened by militant extremists," said Father Mikhail of the Rafah Church. "But we have to be thankful for the good news: the army foiled the attempt."

This Christmas morning, the Supreme Military Council's Facebook page announced that army units stationed in Sinai had foiled an attempt to destroy the Rafah Church, which had faced repeated attacks by Islamist extremists within the past two years.

News of the foiled Rafah attack was disturbing for many Copts – even those far from Rafah. On his way to his parents' house for Christmas lunch, local resident Ayman said he was "really disturbed" by the incident. "It's a good thing the army is on alert and that it protected the church, but it's sad that churches are still under threat."

Attacks on churches have occurred intermitently during the past decade, especially in Alexandria and Upper Egypt. An attack on the Upper Egyptian Nagaa Hamadi Church on Coptic Christmas Eve four years ago left six Copts dead.

However, since ousted president Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down in early 2011, several churches have been attacked and burned. The most troubling of these were two consecutive attacks on churches in Imbaba, a low-income neighbourhood in Giza with a considerable Coptic presence.

These attacks were aggravated by the 9 October 2011 carnage in which military vehicles ran over and killed Coptic demonstrators protesting repeated attacks on churches and Copts.

"Sad as this attack on the Rafah Church is, and sad as the memories of 9 October and Nagaa Hamadi are, the fact remains that we're here in our country celebrating Christmas among what I believe is unprecedented sympathy and warmth from Muslim friends and neighbours," said Ayman.

During the past few days, several radical Islamist preachers have issued calls for Muslims to refrain from extending Christmas greetings to their Coptic compatriots. Al-Azhar, however, has strenuously rejected such calls.

On Coptic Christmas Eve, the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar and Egypt's grand mufti both visited Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros to extend Christmas greetings.

Ayman, for his part, a banker in his early 40s, said he feels as if "every Muslim I know is making a special effort to tell me that they are not listening to these people [radical preachers]; I'm really touched by the fact that some colleagues and neighbours who don't usually bother to extend season's greetings have made a special effort this year."

Hani, a Coptic architect in his early 50s, has also been touched by the "unprecedented enthusiasm of many Muslim friends to extend Christmas greetings this year." On his way to buy Christmas cookies from a Heliopolis patisserie on Sunday, Hani insisted that the "keenness on the part of many Muslims to reject incitement by radicals is not a small thing; it goes to show that Coptic fears of being subjected to harsh discrimination with the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood to power should be reconsidered."

According to Hani, however, such fears are justified to some extent in view of the fact that "harsh" anti-Coptic statements have been made by the Brotherhood leadership – "even though the president has distanced himself from these positions."

"It's true, for example, that today there is only one Coptic cabinet member and that she is a minister of state – my friends call her a 'half-minister' – as opposed to three or four Coptic ministers in the Mubarak era. But it really makes no difference, because those three or four ministers in Mubarak's day were only there for cosmetic purposes," Hani argued.

He added: "So far, our fears have not really materialised. They are not the kind of fears that one can overlook, but they are also not the kind of fears that should make one obsessed; we are living our lives as we have been – nothing new has happened really."

Hani acknowledges that the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt had prompted some friends and family members to pursue immigration plans. "They have readied themselves so they can go whenever they feel they have to. But many of those who could actually go are still here," he noted.

On Cleopatra Street in Heliopolis, at the Coptic church of Mar Morkos and the Evangelical church of Heliopolis, joyful churchgoers attended services amid an intense security presence.

"It's just like every other year: it's cold; there is heavy security; policemen are looking at our legs because we seem to be the only girls in town who still wear short skirts; everything is good," said Kareen, as she found her way to the Evangelical church for the Christmas Eve mass.

"I honestly don't feel that my life has been affected at all with Mohamed Morsi as president; I know that we all oppose him, but he really hasn't done anything to us Christians; the bad things he is doing have impacted the entire country, especially the poor – but not Copts in particular," added the university student.

Ester, a retired Coptic lady, is not as uninhibited as others were, but she still says that "churches are protected and we have received so many greetings this year."

In her mid-70s, Ester is, however, unhappy with the fact that it has become an issue for some to suggest that Muslims should not extend Christmas greetings to Copts.

"I've been living in this country all my life and I never hoped to see a day in which I would hear such a horrible thing. But I would do as Jesus ordered us – I would pray for peace to prevail," she said on her way to the Mar Morkos Church. "Christmas is about hope and faith and we keep our hopes and we keep our faith."

"I'm hopeful. Actually, I'm sure things will get better soon," said Abnob, a Coptic university student, as he left the Coptic Cathedral in Abbasiya, where Coptic Pope Tawadros II delivered his first Christmas mass.

In his statement to worshipers and guests (who included, among others, Conference Party head Amr Moussa and Wafd Party head El-Sayed El-Badawi), Tawadros II sounded more hopeful than worried. He offered prayers for peace in Egypt and asked God to help "our president, Mohamed Morsi" do his best to serve the country and people.

Morsi delegated presidential chief-of-staff Rifaa El-Tahtawi – not his prime minister – to attend this year's Christmas mass in an indication, according to one source familiar with presidential protocol, of his displeasure with the church's "rejection" of a controversial draft constitution adopted in late December.

Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood both sent envoys to this year's Christmas mass, but at much lower levels than those dispatched last year.

For Abnonb, the pope's statements were positive "because they expressed hope and didn't dwell on Coptic fears and concerns; we should not be victims of fear. We will face problems, for sure, but we have faced problems before."

Christmas day politics mattered little for Abnob, a university student who left the Coptic Cathedral on Sunday evening to join festivities in Cairo's Tahrir Square with Christian and Muslim friends. "They can join us if they wish; it's Christmas," he said, adding that the nation's problems were more likely "to unite rather than divide Egypt's Christians and Muslims."

Abnob is convinced that coming months would see citizens taking on the government rather than Christians and Muslims taking on one another. "Those who verbally assaulted Khairat El-Shater [the Muslim Brotherhood's second-in-command] during his participation in last month's constitutional poll were all veiled Muslim women; this is very important. Not all Muslims support the Brotherhood," he insisted.

"The economic problem is not going to divide us along Christian-Muslim lines, but rather along rich-poor lines. Of course, Christians have their own problems related to the right to build churches and limitations on accessing certain [high-level executive and security] positions, but these problems have been there for a very long time; they are not the product of the revolution," Abnob stressed.

According to Abnob, who took part in the Tahrir Square uprising and who is planning to join the call for wider freedoms and rights on the uprising's second anniversary, "the pressing concern now for any Egyptian – Copt or Muslim – isn't religious but economic."

Mohamed, an assistant at a Heliopolis flower shop, likewise believes it is "economy rather than anything else that is impacting Christmas festivities this year."

"This year, the economic situation is especially bad and we all know that it could easily get much worse," he said. "People are simply too apprehensive to spend; they feel that buying a Christmas tree or flower arrangements is a luxury that might be sacrificed in favour of more essential goods."

He added: "It's the economy, but oh well, merry Christmas – let's hope things will get better for all of us."

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