Fearful Egypt Copts mark Christmas after church bombing
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Fearful Egypt Copts mark Christmas after church bombing

Recent surge of deadly attacks by Muslims heightens concerns among small Christian minority; 'Even in church you can’t feel safe,' one says

Egyptian Coptic leader Pope Tawadros II leads Christmas celebration at the St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in the Abbassia District of Cairo on January 6, 2017. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
Egyptian Coptic leader Pope Tawadros II leads Christmas celebration at the St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in the Abbassia District of Cairo on January 6, 2017. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

CAIRO (AFP) — It is Christmas Eve for Egypt’s Copts but Marie Labib is not in a festive mood, with dark thoughts haunting her weeks after a church bombing killed 28 members of her community.

Copts, who make up about one-tenth of Egypt’s population of more than 92 million and who celebrate Christmas on Saturday, have long complained of discrimination.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the December 11 suicide bombing that killed 28 worshipers during Sunday mass in Cairo, the latest bout of bloodshed in the Muslim-majority country.

“No one feels festive. I haven’t baked a cake,” said Labib, a 47-year-old mother of two who lives in the upscale Cairo district of Maadi.

In her living room a huge picture of Jesus Christ hangs on a wall and a small Christmas tree strung with lights sits on a table.

Coptic Orthodox Christians attend a Christmas eve mass at Virgin Mary Church in Road El Farag district, in Cairo, Egypt on January 6, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMED EL-SHAHED)
Coptic Orthodox Christians attend a Christmas Eve mass at Virgin Mary Church in Road El Farag district, in Cairo, Egypt on January 6, 2017. (AFP/Mohamed El-Shahed)

“Fear grips me each time one of my three children goes out,” she said, adding that she has urged her daughters to hide the cross worn around their necks “to avoid any possible attack.”

The church bombing as well as the murder on Monday in second city Alexandria of a Coptic wine merchant, whose throat was slit by a man for apparently religious motives, has compounded fears among Copts.

‘Normal to be worried’

“I don’t feel secure. It is as if someone could kill me thinking that this act would bring them closer to God,” said Marina Najji, one of Labib’s daughters.

The 25-year-old bank employee said she would not heed her mother’s advice to conceal her cross under her clothes when she is out “because it is a part of me.”

But she quickly added: “This is not a happy holiday and I hope it will pass without any problem.”

The December 11 attack was the second church bombing targeting Egypt’s Copts since 2011, when 21 worshipers attending New Year’s Eve mass in Alexandria were killed.

A nun attends Christmas mass led by Egyptian Coptic leader Pope Tawadros II at the St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in the Abbassia District of Cairo on January 6, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI)
A nun attends Christmas mass led by Egyptian Coptic leader Pope Tawadros II at the St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in the Abbassia District of Cairo on January 6, 2017. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

The wine merchant’s murder has only deepened the sense of nervousness.

“It is very normal to be worried after two attacks taking place in less than a month,” said 37-year-old accountant George.

George, who lives in the Pyramids district of Cairo, said he went to Alexandria last week to attend New Year’s mass and was shocked by the tight security.

‘You can’t feel safe’

Metal detectors have been installed at the gates of the churches in Cairo and Alexandria for Coptic Christmas and barriers erected around them to prevent anyone from parking cars in the area.

George said he was body-searched before he went inside the Alexandria church by security agents checking for explosives.

“It’s regrettable that even in church you can’t feel safe,” he said.

Early Friday morning worshipers thronged the Virgin Mary church in north Cairo, entering one by one through a metal detector.

“These are merely precautionary measures. They are not meant to frighten worshipers,” said a church official who declined to be named.

Egyptian security forces and members of the clergy inspect the scene of a bomb explosion at the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Coptic Orthodox Church on December 11, 2016, in Cairo's Abbasiya neighbourhood. (AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI)
Egyptian security forces and members of the clergy inspect the scene of a bomb explosion at the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Coptic Orthodox Church on December 11, 2016, in Cairo’s Abbasiya neighborhood. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

Adel Ishaq, a 30-year-old father of a two-week-old girl, said he knew three people killed in the December 11 church bombing.

Since that bloody attack he has been struggling with his fear of going to church and his mother has implored him to stay away from the house of worship.

“Each time I get ready to go to church fear overwhelms me because I think that I could be the next victim, but I manage to overcome it,” he said.

“Ever since the bombing, Copts feel they have to overcome a challenge,” said Saeed Saadallah, a man in his 70s.

There have been dozens of anti-Christian attacks in Egypt in recent years.

In August 2013 supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi torched a dozen churches and Coptic properties after a police crackdown that left hundreds of Islamist demonstrators dead.

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