Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1326, (5-11 January 2017)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1326, (5-11 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Heightened alert

Copts defy terror to celebrate Christmas, writes Michael Adel

Heightened alert
Heightened alert

Millions of Copts around the country have declared, through social networking sites, in gatherings with friends and relatives and in churches and other forums, that the increased terrorist threat that accompanies every Christian holiday will not stop them from celebrating Christmas. Coptic churches across Egypt are making the preparations for Christmas Mass on 6 January.

At St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbasiya Pope Tawadros II will preside over the service. The cathedral has already begun to send invitations to officials and other public figures according to Archbishop Sergius Sergius, the vice patriarch responsible for organising the annual Christmas celebration.

As in previous years invitations have been sent to the president, prime minister and the speaker of parliament. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb, is expected to call at the papal headquarters before the service to congratulate the pope on the occasion of the holiday.

Many in the Coptic community have expressed relief that the Church of St. Peter, site of a recent terror bombing that claimed 27 lives, has been repaired ahead of Christmas. The restored church will be inaugurated in 2018 to mark the golden jubilee of its foundation. In the meantime it will be open to receive worshippers for Christmas mass and prayers. 

The cathedral has been decked out with Christmas icons and red carpets have been rolled out in anticipation of a visit of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. It will be the third year in a row that the president has attended the mass. Sources say the president will also inaugurate the renovated portion of St Peter’s Church.

Immediately following the attack Al-Sisi instructed army engineering units to repair the church ahead of Christmas. They completed the task on time and the bells of St Peter’s rang in the New Year following a 20 day silence due to the damage caused by the terrorist attack on 11 December. Pope Tawadros II expressed his gratitude to Al-Sisi and the army engineers who restored the church. After presiding over mass in the reopened St Peter’s, the pope joined the families of the victims of the attack in the church’s Mariet Ghali hall.

Andrea Zaki, head of the Anglican community in Egypt, is scheduled to preside over the Christmas service at the Doubara Palace Church. The service will be attended by several public figures and religious officials.

Security forces increased their level of alert several days in advance of the Christmas holidays. Combat forces have been deployed in strategic areas and armoured vehicles stationed close to churches.

In a statement announcing the heightened security measures ahead of the celebrations, Assistant Interior Minister and Cairo Security Director Khaled Abdel-Aal said the aim is to safeguard order, ensure public safety, combat crime and allow the public to mark the festival with complete peace of mind.

The reinforcement of security forces surrounding churches is part of a wider plan that will include no parking zones and increased inspections of passing traffic not only in the vicinity of churches but also around hotels, shopping centres and entertainment centres that will be hosting celebrations.

Father Rifaat Fathi, secretary-general of the Council of the Churches of Egypt, expressed gratitude for the great efforts the government and army have made to repair and reconstruct churches set on fire by terrorists in the wake of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi’s removal in 2013. “We thank God that more than 90 per cent of the work has already been completed. There remain only some final touches which will be completed in the next few months.”

Fathi added the government had spared no efforts in promoting the values of citizenship and equality among all Egyptian people and underlined that the Council of the Churches of Egypt opposed any foreign attempts to use sectarianism as a tool to exert pressure on Egypt. Egyptians “are perfectly capable of managing our domestic affairs from the standpoint of our national affiliation and in light of the country’s general welfare,” he said.

The Coptic Church, which has distanced itself from a US congressional bill — the Coptic Churches Accountability Act — on the repair and restoration of damaged Egyptian churches, issued a statement insisting the Egyptian government has performed all its duties with regard to the repair and restoration of damaged churches and financed the work from local funds. The statement added that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi had met his promise that all repair work would be completed by the end of 2016. “Egyptian national unity is above all other considerations and we refuse any attempt to undermine it,” the statement concluded.

The Catholic Church in Egypt also declared its opposition to foreign intervention in Egypt’s domestic affairs. A statement issued by the church this week lauded the president and government for doing their utmost to rebuild and repair the damaged churches.

Anglican Church Head Zaki said he was surprised when he learned of the controversial bill which calls for monitoring the progress of the reconstruction of damaged Egyptian churches.

 “The churches were burned in 2013. At the time we heard nothing from any American officials or from the US press. Our sister churches in the US knew nothing of what had happened until they communicated with us.

“The Egyptian government stood by us with regard to the repair of the churches,” added Zaki. “Fourteen of our churches were burned and 90 per cent of the repair work on them has been completed. The remaining work is in progress and will soon be finished.”

Zaki expressed concern that in its final days the Obama administration was manoeuvring to drive a wedge between Egypt and the new White House team of Donald Trump and stressed that “Egyptian churches oppose all foreign intervention in Egyptian affairs”.

The Coptic Churches Accountability Act, sponsored in September by a member of the US House of Representatives, calls on the US Secretary of State to submit an annual report to Congress on the Egyptian government’s efforts to restore and repair Christian property that was burned or otherwise damaged during the sectarian violence of August 2013.

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