Cairo Copts celebrate Palm Sunday

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 21 Apr 2019

Rites and referendums. Ahram Online visits a number of Cairo districts with significant Coptic populations at the beginning of the Easter Holy week

(Photo: Adel Anes)

It is late afternoon Sunday and Magdy Shafik is gathering the few palm fronds he had not sold during the past couple of days. For the few hours leading to the beginning of the evening mass at Virgin Mary Church in Zeytoun, eastern Cairo, Shafik decided to sell his fronds for much less.

As of Friday evening, a frond would cost LE3 each. By the time of the beginning of the Holy week, when church tunes turn into sad tones of prayer that mark the suffering and eventual crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Shafik was making an offer of LE5 for three fronds.

(Photo: Adel Anis)

Amir Tawdros, who sells flowers on another pavement close by this early 20th century church that is associated with a rare apparition of Virgin Mary in the wake of the 1967 defeat, was also making a special offer for the remaining buds he has.

Mariam Boulos, having exited Palm Sunday afternoon mass, was buying flowers to take home for the last sayyami lunch where sugar is permitted on the table.

(Photo: Adel Anis)

According to the traditions of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the faithful start a totally vegan fast 55 days ahead of Easter Sunday. For the last week, devout Copts refrain from eating desserts and fruits. Some also observe a dawn to dusk fast that is followed by a vegan meal.

Boulos said she was happy that the fast was coming to an end, but that she was worried about the expense of the traditionally lavish post-midnight dinner that is usually an elaborate feast of meat, poultry, cheese and desserts.

(Photo: Adel Anis)

“We still try to keep the tradition. We also try to keep the tradition of buying new clothes for our children and baking cookies and buying chocolate to offer to friends and family when they come to visit,” Boulos said. “But things have become really expensive, so in a way the fast was sort of helping with our economisation,” added the early 30s lady who was walking in the company of her two young daughters with palm crosses in their hands.

(Photo: Adel Anis)

Badria Wassif, another devout Copt who was exiting the Mar Morcos Church at the heart of the more economically privildged zone of Heliopolis, also in east Cairo, was complaining about cost of festivities.

“But what could we say? We pray for safety and peace. These are the most important things. We could compromise on some things, but not on peace and safety. Maybe things would improve,” said the late sixies lady.

Boulos came to the afternoon prayer after having went to vote on amendments of the constitution.

(Photo: Adel Anis)

The amendment under consideration in the referendum allow the sitting head of state an extension of two years on his second term of presidency and expanded executive prerogatives and an increase in the quota of parliamentary representation for women and Copts.

Boulos said that she decided to vote in favour of the amendments. “I would have preferred a transfer of power, after the second term but I understand that things might need a bit more time. So I thought it about and I decided that I would support the amendments.”

Boulos denies that her decision was based on a statement made by the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawdros II, in favour of the amendments.

(Photo: Adel Anis)

The Coptic patriarch said that the amendments were “in the interest of the nation” and encouraged people to vote.

“The Pope expressed his views. My decision was my own and it was not that I was fully for the amendments, but that I thought that the current status quo was better than jumping into the unknown,” she said.

According to Boulos, her husband, an architect, who is in his early seventies, decided not to vote in favour of the amendments.

“So, each of us made a decision upon our will – away from the views of the Pope,” Boulos said.

Bishoi Karim, a university student who was buying palm fronds as he was stepping out of Mar Girgis Church in Heliopolis Sunday afternoon, said he was hoping that the referendum would have been over before the beginning of the Holy week.

“It would have been better if it was done before the Holy week, because it is rather odd to be at the church for prayers while we are all the time hearing loud music played by polling stations to encourage people to go vote,” Karim said.

“I understand that not so many people are aware of the significance of the Holy week, especially for the Coptic Orthodox who are the majority of Egypt’s Christians,” he added.

Karim, however, said he appreciated the fact that the referendum would be done before Easter Sunday that comes in a week.

Unlike Christmas, that was announced an official holiday in Egypt by former President Hosni Mubarak in 2008, Easter is not an official holiday.

The day that marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ contradicts with the Muslim creed that does not acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God who was crucified and who came back from the dead.

However, given that it comes in the wake of the Friday-Saturday weekend and only one day before Egypt’s most celebrated national holiday (Sham ElNessim), the spring holiday, Easter Sunday for followers of the Coptic Church ends up being a de facto national holiday.

“We end up celebrating together, in fact. I know that this might be particularly the case for us because in Shubra we have always lived together for one generation after the other. But this is the way it is, I think, for the country as a whole,” said Fatema ElSayyed, a late fifties lady.

Like Zaytoun and Heliopolis, Shubra is a Cairo neighbourhood with a significant Coptic community. On Sunday, Copts were giving palm fronds to their Muslim neighbours. For Good Friday, ElSayyed said, almost the entire neighbourhood join in eating the traditional lunch of falafel and bissara (a baked paste of grounded fava beans, cilantro and parsley with fried onions on top).

For Sham ElNassim, the entire nation observes the tradition of eating salted fish and green onions.

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