A sober Christmas in Alexandria
Orthodox Christmas was celebrated under especially tight security at the Two Saints Church in Sidi Bishr this year, as demonstrators nearby pleaded for peace, writes Abeya El-Bakry
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"We live together, we die together," was the slogan that Egyptians emphasised as they gathered on Coptic Christmas Eve to celebrate the unity between Copts and Muslims photos: Sarah Eissa & Abeya El-Bakry
The Two Saints Church in Sidi Bishr, Alexandria, the scene of the New Year's Eve bombing, is at the centre of four city blocks. There is a mosque some 10 metres away, and beside the church there is the Mar Morqos Hospital, with the East Side Hospital across the road.
Ahlam, a resident of the area, remembers the bombing vividly. "At 12.20am on New Year's Eve the bombing took place," she recalls. "It sounded like an earthquake." Her children went down into the street and saw a horrifying scene. "Body parts were scattered all around, flesh was hanging off the walls, and there were people's arms and legs all over the place."
One week later, the site has been cleared, but security measures remain tight and are likely to remain so over following days. On Christmas Eve, only Coptic Orthodox worshippers were allowed to enter the church to pray and take part in the service designed to celebrate the holy night.
Nevertheless, the surrounding area seemed quiet, and the nearby roundabout was empty with only a few cars circulating. In a crowded area like Sidi Bishr, it was surprising to find so few pedestrians, but even as people were walking they could be heard remarking on the tight security measures.
The area had been cordoned off, and members of the security forces were blocking entry into the neighbourhood from all sides, preventing even members of the community from entering.
The area is generally quiet, a place where Muslims and Christians have always lived in peace together. Ahlam commented that the district was one in which people were accustomed to each others' beliefs.
"This cannot be an act by an Egyptian," she said. "There is something about this crime that makes it foreign to Egyptian ways."
The church itself, not one of the older churches in Alexandria, was built in the 1970s. It is responsible for several community projects, and it supports the nearby Mar Morqos Hospital, which receives between 2,000-3,000 people a day, according to a taxi driver who lives in the neighbourhood.
At around 6pm on Orthodox Christmas Eve people started to gather for the evening's service, piquing the interest of passers-by. Some people had come to witness the events out of curiosity, while others had gathered to share the grief of mourners.
Coptic worshippers arrived at the security blockade from the Gamal Abdel-Nasser Square area and the area's other entrance near Mohamed Galal Hammad Street. On entering the restricted area, they had to show their identity cards, with only Copts allowed entry.
The area's Muslims, on the other hand, stood outside the restricted area around the church holding up placards reading "No to Terrorism" and "Our Strength is in Our Unity" and singing patriotic songs.
Some schoolgirls attending the occasion said that the government was dealing with events in a too-routine manner. Few measures had been taken to stop the violence, they complained.
The girls lived in the neighbourhood, and, Muslim themselves, they had Coptic friends in school. They were accustomed to living in a religiously mixed neighbourhood, and if they had curiosity regarding each others' religion, they had learnt to be tactful when discussing religious issues.
One Coptic woman arrived dressed in black and told television reporters that "this is the way we are dressing for our celebration tonight."
Other Copts attending the service said they had received telephone calls from Muslim friends or neighbours, who wanted to pass on their condolences and express their deepest sympathies. Nevertheless, some Copts said they thought the government would do little to defend them, or to prevent such acts from happening again.
At the Sidi Bishr Corniche, four streets away from the site of the Two Saints Church bombing, peaceful protests were staged on 7 January by members of several Egyptian political movements.
The demonstrators, holding their demonstration in silence, represented the National Youth Movement and included members of the Socialist Revolutionaries, the Popular Democratic Movement, the National Movement for Change, the 6 April Movement, the Movement for Justice and Freedom, the Campaign Supporting El-Baradei, and the Ghad and Gabha parties.
The movements blamed the Ministry of Interior and the security forces for what they described as the failure to protect Egyptian citizens during their religious celebrations, even though there had been warnings that such a terrorist attack could take place in Egypt following the earlier bombing of a church in Iraq.
The groups have registered a complaint with the prosecutor- general for alleged negligence, claiming that while the security forces have been able to provide security at football matches, rig parliamentary elections, and provide security for ministerial movements, they are apparently unable to protect the country's Christians.
Underlying the protest there was anger at the bombing, as well as a desire to protest against terrorist actions targeting the country's Christians. There was also a wish to foster links with others who want all Egyptian citizens to be given the same respect and to have the same rights, regardless of religious differences.
The government should take heed and should introduce measures to end perceived discrimination against members of the country's Coptic community, the protesters said.
According to Mohamed Rafiq Khalil, a participant in the demonstration, "we are standing up to make people feel that we all members of one homeland, and that those who died are martyrs for Egypt. We are all members of one family. There is a need for greater education to correct distorted perceptions of religion and to encourage a sense of national belonging."
"People who encourage the kind of distorted perceptions that have led to the church bombing are only fulfilling Zionist plans that aim at splitting Egyptian society."
The demonstration included children, old people, students from schools and universities and others. One student at the demonstration said that there were no differences between people in Egypt.
"We are all members of one country, and we are all to blame if such events take place, because they mean that we have not done enough to understand the problem and to resolve it. However, what we need to do first is to admit that there have been sectarian differences in our society."
Another student said that "it isn't fair that security measures are given to some members of society, while others are denied their right to safety."
The demonstration lasted for two hours, ending with the singing of the national anthem.