Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A community’s celebrations

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian enjoyed safe Armenian Christmas celebrations in Cairo this year

#Christmas celebrations in St Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Orthodox Church (photo: George Tatossian) # State officials, MPs and Armenian church council members attending Christmas mass (photo: George Tatossian)
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Unlike many other Christian communities from different Diasporas that celebrate Christmas on 25 December, Armenian Orthodox Churches worldwide celebrate it on 6 January, a day before the Coptic Orthodox Church’s celebrations.

In Egypt, the small but active Armenian community, believed to have been present in the country since the sixth or seventh centuries CE, enjoyed quiet but safe Christmas celebrations in Cairo last weekend.

The capital’s St Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Orthodox Church on Ramses Street saw unprecedented security measures on 6 January, with security forces present around the Church and inside its gardens.

The church’s gates, usually left wide open, were only partially open, and worshipers queued to pass through an electronic gate with metal detectors to enter the church gardens. A police woman was present to inspect women’s bags assisted by another woman from the community. There were Traffic Police barriers in front of the church, and no cars were allowed to park or wait on Ramses Street around the church area.

Passers-by on Ramses Street will have noticed Egyptian and Armenian flags decorating the church’s outer gates, as is the case for every celebration that takes place within the church. A Christmas tree and crib had been placed in the gardens of the church, with families having their photographs taken in front of them.

“The security measures were very good and were necessary in view of the attack on the St Peter and St Paul Coptic Church in Cairo last month. The government had to take measures for our safety, and we are grateful for them,” said Kevork Erzingatzian, chairman of the board of the Armenian Patriarchal Council, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. 

Christmas mass conducted by Primate of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Egypt Archbishop Ashod Mnatsaganian and Father Hagop Hagopian, accompanied by other clergymen, started at 10 am and lasted for three hours.

Mnatsaganian read a message, in Armenian language, from His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, to Egyptian-Armenian worshippers. Karekin II is the worldwide spiritual leader of the Armenian nation, both in Armenia and the Diaspora.

He is Chief Shepherd and Pontiff to nearly nine million Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians worldwide and is based in Armenia where the Mother See of the Holy Etchmiadzin is based.

A message from Archbishop Mnatsaganian himself was conveyed to the public in Arabic. In the message, read by community member George Simonian, Mnatsaganian said that “on this day we should give to each other the good news of the birth of Jesus Christ, news that carries peace and love.”

“Peace is something we expect to find in our hearts, along with love towards each other. Unfortunately, both are often missing these days, and for that reason the world is full of wars and catastrophes.”

“Thousands of children and elderly men and women face hardships every day. They are in danger of losing the divine gift the Lord has granted them of life. Today we thank God that we enjoy a safe life in our beloved country Egypt. Many are trying to spoil our peace, but with willpower, patience, and in the common struggle against terrorism hand-in-hand with the Egyptian government, we will be able not only to build our present but also to ensure an honourable future for the generations to come,” he said.

“We are one big family living in one homeland, Egypt. Our duty is to preserve this family’s strength for its own safety and stability. The power of our love for each other cannot be disregarded. We pray that the Lord will protect us and will protect our vigilant army and police. We should never forget that the Lord always achieves His will through His children on earth. There is no doubt that brotherhood and love brings peace, being the basis for the war against terror and evil.”

Representatives of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and of the ministers of the interior, Islamic endowments, foreign affairs and national security attended the mass, along with a representative of Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Also present were Cairo Governor Atef Abdel-Hamid representing Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, MP Tamer Al-Shahawi, former MP Mohamed Abu Hamed, head of the Al-Waili district, Consul Stepan Kevorkian representing Armen Melkonian, the ambassador of Armenia in Egypt and representatives of other Egyptian churches and Coptic organisations in Cairo.

The mass was broadcast live on Egyptian FM radio and the Mar Morcos satellite TV channel.

Inside the church there were more than 500 worshipers of all ages, an unprecedented number despite the attack on the St Peter and St Paul Coptic Church last month that killed 28 people.

“The number of worshipers was unprecedented this year, but this wasn’t a surprise,” Mnatsaganian told the Weekly. “Although at first I thought that after the December attack many would not visit the church on Christmas Day, the reality dispelled my thoughts. Our faithful gathered in large numbers and proved that fear does not exist in their lives or in our lives,” he said.

He praised the work of the police in securing the gathering. “I am confident that their hard work and constant presence has inspired us all with great hope,” he said.

Members of the Armenian community in Egypt feel secure in the land their ancestors lived in and the land many of them came to after the 1915 Armenian Genocide. “I cannot deny that I was a little fearful about coming to the church today, but in the end I left it in God’s hands,” Sylva Terzibashian, a housewife in her fifties and a member of the church choir, told the Weekly.

“We’ve been through harder times since the 25 January Revolution. We protested in Tahrir Square and at the Al-Ittihadiya Presidential Palace. We voted, and we witnessed much violence over the past five years. Nothing compares to what we have been through,” she said.

“President Al-Sisi’s visit to the Coptic Orthodox Church and those of high-ranking state officials on Christmas Day, like on other occasions, not only warm relations but also prevent intolerance and enmity,” Mnatsaganian told the Weekly. 

“I didn’t think twice about going to church on Christmas Day,” Osama Haddad, a Copt in his forties married to an Armenian, told the Weekly.

“I might die at any time, even in a car accident,” he added. Haddad said attacks on the Copts had decreased since the 25 January Revolution. “However, you can’t always prevent well-planned attacks, whatever security measures are taken,” he said.

Haddad too noticed that the number of Armenian worshipers who had come to celebrate Christmas was unprecedented this year despite decreases in the community’s numbers due to emigration. “On the other hand, I know Copts who will not go to church tomorrow for the Coptic Christmas mass.”

 The Armenian Apostolic Church is the world’s oldest national church and observes Eastern Orthodoxy, the faith of the Eastern Christian Churches. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion in 301 CE.

Archbishop Mnatsaganian was appointed primate of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Egypt in 2006. The construction of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Cairo started in 1924, and the first mass was held in February 1928.

The church was renovated in 2007 by Egyptian-Armenian architect and archaeologist Nairy Hampikian.

Armenians in Egypt have enjoyed special respect from Egyptian governments over the past century. Egypt sheltered survivors from the Armenian Genocide, creating a special bond between the Armenians and Egypt. There has been an Armenian community in Egypt since the 19th century, and Armenians played an important role in building modern Egypt.

Nubar Pasha Nubarian, a politician of Armenian origin, was Egypt’s first prime minister in 1878. The community once numbered 25,000, but has dropped to 5,000 owing to emigration caused by the nationalisation of large sections of the economy after the 1952 Revolution.

Armenian community members are concentrated in Cairo and Alexandria. They have their own schools and social, cultural and sporting clubs, as well as churches, benevolent associations and newspapers. ‬

An Egyptian delegation of media and public figures together with Pope Tawadros II and Coptic clergymen took part in the Armenian Genocide Centennial Commemorations in Armenia in April 2015.

The Church Council's Chairman Erzingatsian stated that the number of Egyptian officials who shared the Armenian community in its celebrations was remarkable this year. “This is due to the community’s efforts in propagating their one hundred-year-old cause for recognition of the Armenian Genocide,” he said.

“Egyptian officials are becoming more familiar with our cause. They share our pain and our calls for justice, and for that reason they also share our joy and celebrations,” he told the Weekly.

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