It was under the heavy presence of military police that worshipers flocked yesterday night to the Coptic Cathedral in Abassiya to attend the Christmas Eve Mass headed by Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic Patriarch.
And it was with cheers of joy and ululation that the worshipers, who filled the hall of the church, with women sitting on the left and men sitting on the right, received the arrival of the frail and ailing Pope, at 10pm Friday, to join the prayers that had started at 9pm with the presence of key political and state figures and a host activists, MPs, presidential hopefuls and — for the first time ever — representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists whose political parties won an overwhelming majority in parliament.
"He looks well; God give him health and keep him for us. It is his presence that gives us faith that we will always have support no matter what happens," said Kristina, a 24-year old woman from Ezzbatelnakhl, one of the poorer half-urban, half-rural areas around the capital, Cairo.
Kristina and her sister Mariana, also in her early 20s, said they like to attend the Christmas Mass to see Pope Shenouda who for them, as for many of the Copts of Egypt, is more than just a spiritual leader.
For almost all their lives, Kristina and Mariana have learned to associate themselves essentially with the Church and not with the state. For them, the former is predominantly a Muslim state that looks after the interests of Muslim Egyptians while Copts are looked after by the Church and its patriarch, who is now 86 years old.
Unlike many Copts who had since the early days of the January 25 Revolution reconnected with the state and the nation in parallel with their ties with the Church, Kristina and Mariana, who both work as sales assistants in small stores owned by Coptic merchants, still stick to religion only.
And while the nation is busy debating the pros and cons of potential presidential runners, these two women, like others present at the Coptic Cathedral on Christmas Eve, said that for them the greater concern is who will be the next patriarch, rather than president.
"Whoever comes would still not do us full justice, because the mentality of looking at Copts as lesser citizens than the Muslims has not changed and any president would not want to offend the majority," said Mariana. "We are hoping things will get better but we know it is a long way to go before things do get better."
For over three decades, since the mid-1970s, Copts have been increasingly complaining of growing signs of discrimination and hostility against them, not just from extremist political Islamic groups that were boosted by late President Anwar El-Sadat to serve his political interests, but increasingly by the government and the state in general that seemed more willing than not to succumb to extremist views.
Amal Naim, 40, who came from the Lower Egypt governorate of Tanta with her five-year-old son Samman, is also sceptical about the chances of "any new president to do us justice". For Naim, the key questions are simple: Would he allow Copts to build and reconstruct churches freely? Would he allow qualified Copts to access currently off-limit jobs in national security and the state? Would he allow qualified Copts to join the Cabinet on merit, beyond the traditional symbolic presence of two to three Copts out of 20 Cabinet members? "I don’t think so," she said.
Naim had had hopes for Mohamed ElBaradei, the presidential hopeful and former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. "I figured that he lived in the West for a very long time and he should therefore be open-minded and deal with people for what they could offer, rather than for their faith."
However, Naim added, when she heard him talk on TV she was "honestly dismayed, because like all the other candidates his main concern is to appease the Islamists".
Still, if Naim has to choose she would give her vote to ElBaradei. "We choose from what we have."
Sally Baki, a 38-year old accountant from Shubra, also said she would vote for ElBaradei because he lived overseas for a long time and his "mind is not immediately biased against Copts". "But would he really run?" she asked sceptically.
ElBaradei was conspicuously absent from the Christmas Mass, unlike presidential hopefuls including Amr Moussa, Ahmed Shafiq and Hamdin Sabahi.
Mina Soliman and his brother Fadi Soliman, secondary students who joined the Christmas Mass at the Coptic Cathedral, both said that they would vote for Shafiq, the last prime minister of ousted president Hosni Mubarak and previously the long-serving minister of civil aviation.
For the two Solimans, the choice of Shafiq makes sense, because "ElBaradei is almost a foreigner and cannot run Egypt," according to Mina, and because Moussa "was kicked out of the regime, that is still in place, even if Mubarak was removed."
Neither of the two Solimans seemed concerned about the military background of Shafiq, because they do not share the wide concern of many activists about the danger of ex-military personel running the state, and they also do not take the attack on Coptic demonstrators on 9 October as an indication of anti-Coptic sentiment in the army.
For Mina, the next president will be a dictator, "one way or another, because things do not fully change overnight." For Fadi, what happened on 9 October is the result of years of anti-Coptic discrimination in the state, and not necessarily in the military, adding "the military has attacked and killed Muslims as well, so it is not about us."
Both students observed that the presence of Sami Annan, the number two of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), was well received by the Coptic Patriarch and many worshipers.
This warm reception accorded to Annan and other military figures was not shared by a group of young Copts who openly chanted anti-SCAF slogans as Annan was entering the Cathedral, only to be hushed by security, all to the anger of Samira Mina.
"They were expressing their views and the military needs to know that we have not forgotten that many of our churches were burnt down through the months after the revolution and that our young men were killed by the military (on 9 October)."
This 55-year-old lady, who came from Alexandria to join the Christmas Mass, said she is inclined to vote for Moussa. Like the two Solimans, Mina is convinced that the next president cannot be a complete stranger to the system, though unlike them she does not want anyone with a military background.
"So many young men, Christians and Muslims, have been dying for over a year now to make our country a civil country and we would be betraying the blood of the martyrs if we let go of this objective," she said.
She added: "Knowing that the next president would be Muslim anyway," she wants "a moderate Muslim who would be accepted by the majority and still not biased against Christians."
Meanwhile, the Christmas Mass at the Coptic Cathedral was marked by considerable hope among worshipers for a better year ahead. The presence of representatives of political Islamic parties was well received by many worshipers.
"Let us hope that they take our interests into consideration," said Naim as Pope Shenouda was shaking hands with Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.