A massive plan to protect Egyptian churches swung into action on Friday as Coptic Christians prepared to celebrate their first post-revolution Christmas, with Islamist leaders attending for the first time.
"The interior ministry has drawn up a huge security plan in cooperation with the armed forces to protect all the churches of Egypt at Christmas," the official told AFP.
Police and troops have been deployed outside churches and surrounding streets, while all those attending services will go through a security check, the official said.
The measures come a year after more than 20 people were killed in an apparent suicide bombing targeting a church in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. In 2010, six Copts were killed as they emerged from a Christmas Eve mass in southern Egypt.
For the first time, the Christmas Eve service led by Coptic Pope Shenouda III, will be attended by Islamist groups – propelled to the centre stage of politics after a popular uprising ousted veteran president Hosni Mubarak in February.
The powerful Muslim Brotherhood – long banned under Mubarak – is to send its number two, Mahmud Ezzat, while the group's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, will be represented by its leader Mohammed Morsi, the group said.
Last week, the Brotherhood announced it had set up popular committees to protect churches during the Christmas period "so that the hands of sin do not ruin the festivities like they did several times under the old regime."
Coptic Christians, who make up around 10 percent of Egypt's 82 million population, have been the target of frequent attacks and complain of systematic discrimination.
The Middle East's largest Christian community has also become increasingly concerned about the rise of Islamist political influence since the uprising that toppled Mubarak.
The Freedom and Justice Party, has emerged as the front-runner in the first post-revolution parliamentary elections.
The largest party representing the more hardline Salafist movement, the Nour Party, has come a close runner-up in the first two rounds of polling.
The Copts follow their own ancient calendar under which Christmas Day falls on 7 January.