Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church holds Christmas mass at the Abassiya Cathedral in Cairo. Photograph: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA
The Islamophobes would like nothing more than strife and disunity between Muslims and Copts in Egypt. Much to their dismay however Pope Shenouda calls for unity in the country.
Egypt’s Coptic pope celebrates Christmas with call for unity
David Shariatmadari and Damien Pearse (The Guardian)
As Coptic Christians celebrated their first Christmas after the Egyptian revolution, their pope called for national unity amid fears that their community will suffer under Islamic majority rule.
Copts, who use of a 13-month calendar dating back to pharaonic times, celebrated Christmas Day on Saturday.
At the start of the festive celebrations in Egypt, prominent figures from across the political spectrum, including leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and members of the ruling military council, attended Friday night mass at Cairo’s main Coptic cathedral.
The Coptic pope, Shenouda III, commended their presence and appealed for national unity for “the sake of Egypt”. He said:
For the first time in the history of the cathedral, it is packed with all types of Islamist leaders in Egypt. They all agree … on the stability of this country, and in loving it and working for it, and to work with the Copts as one hand for the sake of Egypt.
The call for unity follows an escalation in violence against the Christian minority, an estimated 10% of Egypt’s 85 million people, over the past year.
Many Christians blamed a series of street clashes, assaults on churches and other attacks on radical Islamists who have become increasingly bold after Mubarak’s downfall.
The Coptic church traces its origins to 50 years after the death of Christ, when Mark the Evangelist took the gospel to the pagan city of Alexandria.
British Copts, expatriate members of the Egyptian denomination, have also expressed their concerns over the events of the Arab spring.
“Because of the problems in the last 12 months, overall attendance every Sunday has increased significantly,” said Nabil Raphael, a GP who has lived in London for the past 35 years. He is a regular at St Mark’s church in Kensington. “Whenever there are problems in the mother church, people naturally get more interested and attend more regularly.”
Christmas services took place across Britain, with centres of worship in London, Hertfordshire, Birmingham, Newcastle and Kirkcaldy, Scotland.
As families gathered for the late-night church services marking Christmas Eve, there was a sense of nervousness, as well as joy. “Last year started horrifically for us,” said Egyptian-born Bishop Angaelos, who is based at the Coptic Centre, a manor house on the outskirts of Stevenage, Hertfordshire. “Just as we were going into new year celebrations we heard about the bombing.”
The 1 January 2011 attack outside al-Qiddissine church in Alexandria, the worst sectarian violence in Egypt for more than a decade, left 23 dead.
Attacks on the community continued after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, prompting thousands of Copts to take to the streets in protest that no culprits had been brought to justice. The military violently quashed the most recent demonstration in October, leaving 27 dead and provoking further outrage.
“At the beginning [of the revolution] there was a great euphoria, a sense of hope for the future,” said Angaelos. “The problem is that because of the lack of law and order, you then had a lot of extremism. We saw in the past 10 months more attacks on Christians and churches than over the past two years before that.”
Amir Michaeel, 26, saw the revolution as a moment of hope for the country, which he left aged 12 when his father came to the UK to work. But he is concerned by the emergence of more organised Islamic parties.
Raphael is more categorical. “There is real concern about the likelihood of harsher treatment for the Copts if radical Islam is to rule Egypt.”
Bishop Angaelos said the community had no issue with a Muslim majority government as long as the rights of Copts were protected: “What we want is a government which represents everyone in the country, not just one sector over another.”