In Egypt, ministers and movie stars turn out for trouble-free Christmas mass

Yasmine El-Rashidi and Yasmine Fathi, Friday 7 Jan 2011

Amidst high-security and in an unprecedented show of solidarity, Muslims and Copts gathered at churches across Egypt Thursday night to observe the Coptic Christian Christmas eve mass

Pope Shenouda III, head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox church, led prayers at the Coptic Cathedral on Christmas eve Thursday

At the Patriarchate in Abbasiya, where the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, led the evening’s mass to mark Coptic Christmas on January 7, dignitaries, stars, officials and twelve ministers congregated in a show of respect and support.

Among those in attendance, were Coptic Minister of Finance Youssef Boutros Ghali, the president's two sons, Gamal and Alaa Mubarak – the latter of whom was joined by his wife – ­ the president’s chief of staff Zakaria Azmi, Information Minister Anas El Fiqi, former Minister of Environment Nadia Makram Ebeid, movie stars Adel Imam and Yousra, liberal Wafd party's deputy Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, and members of the prominent Coptic Sawiris family. Foreign dignitaries, including the French and US ambassadors, were also in attendance, and Muslim preacher Amr Khaled was spotted amidst the crowds.

Inside the cathedral, plainclothes security were conspicuous, both in the altar and dotted throughout the gathered congregation. Copts sat by Muslims, both of whom had been searched before entering the Papal grounds.

Egyptian actor Adel Imam, a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, looked evidently upset. A staunch advocate for human rights and a united Egypt, Imam previously co-starred alongside Omar Sharif in the Egyptian comedy, Hassan and Morqos, a story about a Muslim (Hassan) and a Copt (Morqos) who – in a twisted and dramatic tale – become the best of friends and then business partners.

“You have shielded us and protected us God,” an exhausted looking Pope began a little after 10pm to the packed congregation.

“Before I congratulate you for Christmas,” the Pope said, “I want to mourn our children in Alexandria and in many countries where they have been martyred; innocents who haven't done anything. I also send my condolences to our children in Nag Hammadi, since one year has passed since their death.”

The Pope thanked President Mubarak, who had called him earlier in the day to console him over the victims of last weekend’s church bombing and also to offer his greetings for Christmas.

“I remember President Mubarak's statement that the blood of our children is not cheap. I thank him for saying this,” said the Pope. “Thank you from all our hearts President Mubarak because he made Christmas a national day for all Egyptians."

Security was at its highest ever ahead of this year’s Coptic Christmas eve mass. In Abbasiya, streets were cordoned off from early in the afternoon with state security cars and officers. Only those with an invitation or permit from the Interior Ministry were allowed to enter the grounds.

At another church, the Virgin Mary Coptic Church in the residential district of Zamalek, people were searched and questioned as they passed metal barricades blocking an almost one mile radius of streets around the church. Inside the church premises, the mood was subdued – many men and women had their faces buried in their hands. A few shed tears.

In other churches, people held candles outside in silent vigils, after having been prevented from entering by guards.

In the days before the mass, Muslims and Copts joined together in a show of solidarity that included street protests, rallies, and widespread Facebook unity campaigns calling for an “Egypt for All”. Across the country and on internet-based social network sites, the symbol of the cross within the crescent appeared in the hundreds of thousands on Facebook and Twitter profiles within just hours of the bombing.

The outpour of anger towards the terrorist attack that claimed 21 lives at the Saints Church in Alexandria on New Year’s eve, has taken even Egyptians themselves by surprise. In past attacks on Egypt’s minority Christian Coptic community, verbal condemnation has been immediate, but even the most moderate of Egyptians have seldom taken to the streets or offered themselves as “a Muslim shield” in support of the Copts – as they did for this year’s Christmas eve mass. Outside one church, small flyers were being handed out, "Either we live together, or we die together". Their source: Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon.

At the mass Thursday, Egyptian celebrities and media personalities stood at the steps of the cathedral before the service and recited poems about Egypt. “Today, I don't say I'm Muslim or I'm Christian,” one host announced. “I say, I'm Egyptian.”

The mass was covered live by national TV, and featured interviews with prominent figures in attendance, all of whom spoke of the importance of national unity in Egypt.

“We’ve been building this country for years and then a traitor comes and destroys all the hard years of work,” Minister of Finance Ghali said. “But now this traitor has 80 million Egyptians standing up to him.”

Egypt’s Copts, who are thought to make ten percent of the country’s 80 million population, have been the subject of alleged persecution and marginalization for decades. Although some of the country’s most prominent businessmen and ministers are Coptic, persecution among the population’s majority middle and lower working class has been widespread.

In January of last year, on the eve of Coptic Christmas, a drive-by shooting in the southern town of Nag Hammadi killed eight Copts as they were leaving church following mass. And the following November, Copts and riot police clashed over a government moratorium on construction of a Christian community center. The violence claimed two lives.

In the weeks prior to the Alexandria bombing, the Coptic community had been left feeling marginalized and irked by the government, which all but obliterated their voice in the parliament that was elected in December to serve a five-year term. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) had fielded just 10 Coptic candidates out of if its 780 nominees vying for the 508 available seats. Of a total 5,725 candidates running for election, just 81 – less than 2 percent – were Copts. Of those who ran, the majority were pulverized by the NDP in an election filled with vote rigging, corruption and violence at the hands of the government.

Last Saturday’s bombing was in many ways a final straw for a cohort of Copts, activists and politicians who have all had growing grievances with the regime for a political landscape governed by limited pluralism and that favours the rich. The Copts have long felt persecuted, activists mistreated, and politicians duped by a ruling party that has offered little space for opposition voices unless their pockets are deep.

In the week following the bombing, these voices came together, in a unified chorus that calls for equality for all, and that has demanded of the government real change in this poverty-stricken country long governed by draconian antics and laws.


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