Coptic history and folk researcher Robert Al-Faress has been busy with a "cultural campaign" during the weeks leading up to the celebration of Coptic Christmas on 7 January.
The aim of the campaign, titled “A holy doctrine for life,” is to show the Copts of Egypt that their creed does celebrate life as much as it celebrates death.
The campaign started with a series of articles printed in several dailies about the significance of life – the birth and resurrection of Christ – in Christian theology.
“In Egypt, Copts give more attention to Easter rather than Christmas; and when they think of Easter, they think more of the pain that Jesus Christ had to endure before his crucifixion rather than the resurrection that embodies the victory of life over death,” said Al-Faress.
According to Al-Faress -- who authored a 2016 book titled “The neglected chapters of Copts’ political folk” -- the highest church attendance during the year across the country is on Passion Week.
“Good Friday, which celebrates the crucifixion of Christ, is perhaps the highest church attendance day – with women mostly dressed fully in black as a mark of mourning,” he said.
Al-Faress argued that this is partially due to the fact that the crucifixion is central to the Christian creed. However, he added that it is also a “cultural specification” of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
“Christians everywhere bow to the crucifixion, but it is overemphasised in our [Coptic] Orthodox Church,” he argued.
Al-Faress is convinced that this is “essentially about the Egyptian cultural heritage and folk tradition.”
“In our Pharaonic mythology, we celebrated the agony of Isis when she cried over the death of Osiris. This has influenced our collective cultural consciousness as Egyptians, hence the association with the agony of the Virgin Mary over the crucifixion of Jesus, or for Muslims, [the suffering of] Sayyeda Zeinab,” he said.
Sayyeda Zainab was the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohamed, who is named "the mother of agonies" for having lived through the pain of the killing of her father Ali, the fourth Muslim ruler after the death of Mohamed, and her two brothers Al-Hassan and Al-Hussein – the three being the ultimate symbols of martyrdom in Islamic history.
Al-Faress says that for followers of Western Churches, Christmas is the main holiday to celebrate, “because they celebrate the glorious birth of Christ, but we celebrate his agony and his death.”
Al-Faress argued that it is the Egyptian focus on agony that significantly reduces church attendance during Christmas, “despite the high significance of the prayers of the 50 days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday, which marks the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the apostles – and the conclusion of the Easter Season."
“Our Church has always celebrated death over life, which perhaps has to do with the endless martyrs that had to give their lives to hold on to their creed over the centuries,” Al-Faress said.
And this is why, Al-Faress added, that -- with the exception of the Hymns of Keihak, the Coptic month of the 29 days leading to the birth of Christ -- there are no significant symbols of Christmas celebration.
Everything, from the Christmas tree to the giving of gifts, is inspired by Western Churches, which once had a considerable community in Egypt, and is not widely observed by the followers by the Coptic Orthodox Church – as opposed to, for example, the followers of the Greek and Armenian Orthodox Churches in Egypt.
Christmas is celebrated as the "lesser feast," in the same vein as the Muslim "lesser feast" that marks the end of the fast of Ramadan – with generous meals and traditional Egyptian cookies.
“However, Copts have no particular dish of their own to cook for Christmas, or Easter for that matter, as they join the rest of Egyptians in celebrating Sham El-Nessim [the Spring Holiday – the Monday following Easter Sunday],” Al-Faress said.
According to Al-Faress, the only signs of considerable festivities that Copts celebrate are incorporated in the Moulids of the Virgin Mary and other saints, “and to be very frank, this is because these Moulids are not celebrated under the supervision of the Church; they are strictly folk traditions observed by Christians and Muslims alike.”
This “excessive association” with death over life by the Coptic Church "needs to be revised," Al-Faress said.
“We need to start believing that Christianity was served not just by those who died to hold on to their creed, but also by those who lived despite the odds over so many centuries, and passed on the faith,” Al-Faress said.
The birth of Christ and his resurrection, are about life, but “the Orthodox Church finds it easier to bow to death, because it cannot depart from its submission to the killing of Christians in the Middle Ages," Al-Faress argued.
“This submission to death evolved into a culture of submission in general, and it is being reflected in so many ways today,” argued Al-Faress.
It is this “deeply rooted sense of submission”, Al-Faress said, that explains the "uncontested compliance" of the Coptic Church last month to the killing of close to 30 churchgoers in an attack on the St Peter and St Paul Church next to the Coptic Cathedral in Abassiya.
“The Church said it took pride in giving more martyrs, which is precisely about submission; starting with the submission to death and then to the submission to aggression and persecution. It is not all political; it is predominantly cultural,” Al-Faress argues.
This is the reason why Al-Faress started his campaign "a holy doctrine for life," in order to "remind everyone that our theology should not be hijacked by death."
“It is only when the Coptic Church starts to embrace the love of life that it can start to depart from the culture of submission to persecution – and only then can we expect it to openly decry discrimination and violence against Copts,” Al-Faress stated.
He added that the first step on this long path is for "Copts to learn to better enjoy Christmas."