"As the world celebrates Christmas and New Year, and as the Copts of Egypt prepare to celebrate their Christmas, we are hoping for peace to prevail over the Middle East," said President Hosni Mubarak in a key political speech before the seventh annual conference of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) he leads.
Later, in the same speech, Mubarak emphasised that Egypt is "a civil state" where all Egyptians, "Muslims like Copts", live in equal citizenship. The emphasis of national unity and full respect of the rights of Copts are not new to the discourse of the president — particularly during this year that was marred with considerable tension between Muslims and Copts. However, this time the reference was more elaborate.
Indeed, the reference amounted to a declaration by the president that Pope Shenouda III has decided not to cancel Christmas Mass at the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in protest against the continued detention of Copts in the wake of a demonstration that turned violent when security officials attempted to illegal construction work on a church in Giza. Mubarak had received Shenouda III at the presidential palace last week — a rare official encounter.
Over half of the Copts in custody were released soon after while the Coptic Church, whose patriarch is vocally supportive of Mubarak's rule and of the possible succession of his younger son, Gamal Mubarak, started to issue delayed invitations for Christmas Mass. Gamal Mubarak has also been touching on the issue of national unity, asserting that the ruling party is committed to equal citizenship and non-discrimination between Copts and Muslims.
During the recent parliamentary elections, the NDP nominated no more than 10 Copts out of close to 800 candidates. Mubarak addressed the shortfall by assigning seven out of 10 seats he appoints to Coptic figures. Still, leaders of the Coptic Church were offended by the appointment of Gamal Assaad, who is perceived as an anti-Church figure.