Egypt’s Copts mark Christmas with fear for the future

As country struggles with the role of Islam in society, some Christians consider emigrating

Pope Tawadros II, the 118th pope of the Coptic Church of Egypt, is greeted by Egyptian Christians as he prepares to lead a midnight Mass at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt, in January 2013 (AP/Amr Nabil)
Pope Tawadros II, the 118th pope of the Coptic Church of Egypt, is greeted by Egyptian Christians as he prepares to lead a midnight Mass at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt, in January 2013 (AP/Amr Nabil)

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s minority Christians were celebrating their first Christmas after the election of an Islamist president and a new pope — and following adoption of a constitution many argue has an Islamist slant.

Christians gathered in Cairo’s main cathedral Sunday for Midnight Mass on the eve of Orthodox Christmas led by their new pope. Pope Tawadros II was elected in November to replace longtime Pope Shenouda III, who died in March after 40 years as the leader of the church.

Islamist President Mohammed Morsi called Tawadros with Christmas greetings and sent one of his aides to the Christmas mass.

Concerned for their future and their ancient heritage in Egypt, some Copts are reportedly considering leaving the country.

As Egypt struggles with the role of religion in society, many Copts are aligning themselves with moderate Muslims and secular Egyptians who also fear the rise of Islamic power.

Amir Ramzy, a Coptic Christian and a judge in Cairo’s court of appeals, said Christmas is a chance to retreat and pray for a “better Egypt.”

“Christians are approaching Christmas with disappointment, grief and complaints, fearing not only their problems but Egypt’s situation in general,” Ramzy said. “During the reign of (ousted President Hosni) Mubarak and the (military rulers), mainly Christians were facing problems, but now with the Muslim Brotherhood leaders, each and every moderate Egyptian is facing problems.”

In one of his first public messages after his enthronement, Tawadros said the ouster of Mubarak opened the way for a larger Coptic public role, encouraging them to participate in the nation’s evolving democracy.

Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people, have long complained of discrimination by the state and the country’s Muslim majority. Clashes with Muslims have occasionally broken out, sparked by church construction, land disputes or Muslim-Christian love affairs.

Following the ouster of Mubarak in 2011, sectarian violence rose, and attacks on churches sent thousands of Coptic protesters into the streets. A protest in October 2011 was violently quelled by the country’s military rulers, leaving 26 people dead and sparking further outrage.

Ereny Rizk, 34, whose brother George died in that incident, said it was the second Christmas without him, but that the election of a new pope has raised her spirits.

“I felt like he’s my father. Having him lessened the severity of my grief,” she said. “I definitely thought about leaving the country, but two things stopped me. First the churches and the monasteries in Egypt, our heritage that I’ll be missing. Also, I decided not to let my brother’s blood go in vain.”

The violence has abated, and 2012 was characterized more by the struggle for political and religious rights, said Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

“It is not actual frequent sectarian violence, it is fear of further marginalization and second class citizenship,” he said, adding that Egypt has been deeply polarized as it drafted the constitution. Christians and liberals walked out of the committee writing it, complaining that their concerns were not being addressed by the Islamist majority.

Youssef Sidhom, the editor of Egypt’s main Coptic newspaper, Watani, said Christians are more concerned for the identity of Egypt, saying that legislation based on the new constitution will be focus of attention out of fear of restrictions on the way of life of Christians and their freedom of worship and expression.

“Egypt is stepping into 2013 split and divided between Copts and moderate Muslims on one side confronting political Islam and fundamentalists on the other side,” Sidhom said. “It will only be (resolved) through reconciliation, and this is the challenge that we will have to meet.”

Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher with EIPR who monitors religious freedom cases in Egypt, said Coptic Christians are facing two new sets of problems: cases of insulting Islam and fear for their life style because of increasingly assertive radical Islamists.

In October, two Coptic boys were put in a juvenile detention after locals accused them of urinating on pages of the Quran, Islam’s holy book. It was one in a series of cases against Coptic Christians in the same period, following the fury over an anti-Islam film produced in the United States. The case against the boys was later dropped after mediation.

Ibrahim said some wealthy Copts, who have connections abroad, have temporarily sought to leave Egypt.

“But the majority (of Christians) are also less fortunate,” he said. “Like most Egyptians, they are with little education and have difficult economic conditions.”

Verna Ghayes, a 21-year old arts student, also noted the deteriorating economic situation. Her father, an architect, lost his job because of a tight market. She felt the hardships, have, in turn, encouraged Christians to seek relief from God.

“With all the unfortunate events that are happening to Egypt, Christians came closer to God, they started to pray more, believing that only God could handle it,” she said. “For me that’s the good thing, and everything is according to God’s plan,” she said.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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