Egypt's Catholics celebrate gloomy Christmas

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 26 Dec 2013

For Egyptian Catholics, the Christmas holiday season is no longer as joyful as it once was, particularly this year

Egyptian Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Ishaq in Christmas mass, 24 December 2013, (Photo:

Aida is elegantly clad in a dark blue dress. She walks slowly, keeping pace with her elderly mother Madeline, while her husband Hani and her two sons, Rami and Karim, march towards the St Fatima Church for Christmas mass.

Aida and Hani's family is one of the few that celebrate Christmas Eve on 24 December according to the Western calendar.

"Oh, it used to be so nice! We were never that many, not even in my youth, but our churches were fuller and the Christmas feeling wrapped the entire city, especially when we spent Christmas in Alexandria with my grandmother...Those were the days," reminisced the 54-year-old lady with a cheerless smile.

The Catholics of Egypt – who largely reside in Alexandria – are a minority within the wider Christian minority predominantly composed of Orthodox Copts. Their numbers, according to the Catholic Church of Egypt, is under 250,000 – which makes them only more numerous than the Evangelicals whose number stands at around 150,000 Egyptians.

Egyptian Catholics subscribe to about 15 sub-churches -- including the Greek, Roman and Maronite Catholics -- who found their way to Egypt during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries with the Syrian and Lebanese wave of migration described in Massoud Dahr's "The Migration of the Shawam (Levantines) to Egypt."

Egyptian Italians and Egyptian Maltese, whose presence in the country was strongly felt under Mohamed Ali's rule and beyond, also formed a substantial part of the Catholic community in Egypt.

Today, the archives of these churches -- some of which are almost completely deserted as their followers have departed from Egypt -- carry the memory of a history of diverse Egyptian Christianity whereby Catholic families contributed to the social, cultural, economic and political developments of the nation.

"Today, although we have become such a small group of people, we feel no loneliness. Our churches may not be full on Christmas mass, yet we remain Egyptians above all else," said Father Youhanna Qoulta while preparing for the Christmas Eve Mass at Nasr City's Virgin Marry Church – one of Cairo's largest standing Catholic churches.

"Some also live in Upper Egypt and elsewhere, but we are mostly around Cairo and Alexandria, where our major cemeteries stand testimony to our long history in this country," Father Youhanna added.

Having spoken to Ahram Online hours before Tuesday's Mansoura bombing, Father Youhanna had just mentioned that his prayers this Christmas went to the "end of violence, pain and bloodshed all across Egypt and among all Egyptians."

For Aida and Hani, it is "very sad" and "very depressing" that the Mansoura blast had to occur hours before Christmas Eve. "Our feasts are not as joyful because our families are getting smaller -- either because so many have already left Egypt or because the elderly are leaving us. We really did not need such a sad bombing with so many dead to add to it," Hani said.

Hani and Aida are planning a family dinner for those who remain in Cairo and the traditional exchange of gifts. "We try to keep a positive spirit and hope that things will move in the right direction; we pray for mercy," Aida said.

Father Youhanna had also said he would pray for a positive turn of events "after all the hardship that our country has endured."

"We will pray for the draft constitution -- that we think is good for the most part -- to be adopted and we will pray for the leaders of this country, the president, the prime minister and the ministers, to be guided by the mercy of God to take this country in the right direction."

He added he was "confident that the state would do its utmost to provide sufficient security for our churches."

An army spokesman issued solemn congratulations to the Catholics of Egypt, wishing them a Merry Christmas despite the nation's grief following the attack on Mansoura.

Around 180 Catholic churches stand in the country. However, the strongest Catholic presence in Egypt is created by the schools established over a century ago, run by Catholic nuns and monks, where numerous Egyptians of all faiths have studied and graduated.

The statue of the Virgin Mary carrying baby Jesus stands in the court of every one of these schools, where the firm but deeply affectionate nuns and monks provide students with much love and care along with education.

In his book "Christianity in Egypt" historian Abdel-Aziz Gamaleddin credits these schools for the joyful diffusion of Catholic-style Christmas and Easter celebrations into the lives of many Egyptians, including Muslims.

Reem, a third-generation graduate of the prominent College de la Mère de Dieu, plans to send her daughter to the same school, from which her mother Dina and her grandmother Nagwa also graduated.

"As a Muslim, I never felt any discrimination or awkwardness; it was all very easy and we all have joyful memories, especially with the Christmas season where we used to celebrate twice -- once with our Catholic friends on 25 December and a couple of weeks later with our Coptic and Evangelical friends on 7 December."

Reem, who is in her late 40s, had fewer Catholic classmates than her mother and grandmother. "Many left when we were still in primary in the early 1970s," she remembered.

The migration of Egyptian Catholics, especially the Italians and the French, took place mostly after the 1952 Revolution and subsequent nationalisation of properties. After the 1967 war defeat, even larger numbers left with a sense of bitterness, feeling unwelcome as "people felt that families carrying the non-typical Egyptian names were foreigners and not truly patriotic. It was very sad," Aida said. Her brother, Rafiq, was among those who left. 

Rafiq did not return to Syria where his family originated but "just went to Canada along with many other Christian Egyptians, in fact many other Egyptians in general, who pursued better opportunities at a time when we felt that the dream of a prosperous Egypt had been defeated," Aida said.

Father Youhanna agrees that most Catholics migrating from Egypt were prompted by the exact same reason that had motivated the migrations to Egypt: the economy.

"You cannot say there was definite discrimination or anything of the sort; it was essentially the fall of the economy and the shattered dream of modernity. We hope things will pick up and our dear country can see better days,” he said in reference to present times. He added that the adoption of the new constitution and then the election of "the right president" would be the first steps towards this aspired evolution.

The Catholic Church had delegated a representative, Father Antonios Aziz, to the 50-member committee charged with drafting the constitutional amendments. Despite the numerous debates, Father Antonios said, "this new constitution remains a good one because it offers the proper base whereby an Egyptian citizen is an Egyptian citizen."

Aida agrees. "I never felt anything but Egyptian and the fact that some couple of centuries ago my great-grandparents had arrived from Syria meant nothing to me than just a little story that I heard when I was a small girl. I know no other nationality than my Egyptian one and I never pursued another although I could have obtained it through relatives."

Aida and Hani are determined to live the remainder of their lives in Egypt and to be buried exactly where Aida’s father and Hani’s parents were buried – the Catholic cemeteries.

This is not the sentiment shared by their sons Rami and Karim, who openly state that even if the constitution passes, and even if things move forward, they still feel the need to pursue more prosperous economic possibilities elsewhere.

Father Youhanna Qoulta acknowledged the sustained trend towards migration in the already very small Catholic community, but remains convinced the cultural imprint of Egyptian Catholics will survive – even hoping for a day of reversed migration. "Who knows, maybe one day," he posited, adding "For now, however, we live happily with other Egyptians, both Christian and Muslim."

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