Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Tidings of comfort

Michael Adel reviews Christmas celebration ceremonies in Coptic churches across Egypt

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The first Christmas under Islamist rule saw a variety of festivities, masses and prayers amid fears after a fatwa [religious edict] was issued banning Muslims from extending Christmas wishes to Christians and against a backdrop of tight security measures.

Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of Saint Mark, spent eight hours receiving well-wishers who flooded the Cathedral to attend his first Christmas celebration. Instructions had been given not to turn anyone away.

“We are praying for Egypt and its security, and that its image remains intact in front of everyone,” said Tawadros. He added in his sermon during Christmas mass: “We pray for this beloved country whose soil and Nile we love and are proud to be a part of. Egypt is at the heart of all our prayers. We do not pray for the land but for the people: we pray that God protect President Mohamed Morsi who called me on the phone to deliver his greetings for Christmas. We also pray for officials to have wisdom in running the country. We pray for peace in all regions where there is conflict. We pray for the safety of our beloved Egypt and for its peace and security. We adore its soil and Nile.”

In exclusive statements to Al-Ahram Weekly Pope Tawadros II said he was saddened by the call denouncing greetings to Christians. He blamed all of society for the fears of Egypt’s Copts.

“The edict not to extend greetings to Copts is a deep wound… society must tell anyone banning these greetings that it is shameful, or at least to be quiet.”

He added that “anyone who distorts the image of society or excludes the other must not be given media coverage”.

The pope asserted that “the fears of some are the responsibility of all of society and the messages to us should be reassuring… The beauty of Egypt is its diversity and we must all guard that.”

Asked whether the Church was dabbling in politics Pope Tawadros responded that the Church is “primarily a spiritual institution with a spiritual mission and has nothing to do with politics.”

“As for the problems facing Copts, constructing houses of worship is the biggest. There is, too, the disappearance of under-age girls and some harassment by the weak-minded along with restrictions in daily life and not allowing Coptic high achievers to become all they can or appreciating their excellence, like their Muslim brothers, whether in education or the workforce.”

The pope asserted that the church does not have any alliances with political factions but encourages the exercise of citizenship in the form of contesting elections and voting.

“I am an optimist by nature and have a positive outlook towards the future,” he said. “I believe God will do something wonderful in Egypt… I believe things will settle down three years or so after the revolution started.”

Discussing his Christmas message to Copts, the Pope said: “I was keen on allaying the fears of Copts and took this celebration to tell them that the birth of Christ is a day of joy and carries a message of love and peace. I wish for any attempts to abort Egypt’s remarkable spirit that has prevailed for centuries to be blocked. We must prevent violence and instability in Egypt and must flourish economically, politically and socially without looking back at extremist ideas. Egypt must present an exceptional image of itself to the world as a country that respects human rights.”

Prime Minister Hisham Kandil remarked during his visit with Pope Tawadros that Christmas “is a happy day for Egypt, the united nation”.

“There are no factions in Egypt but just one faction which is Egyptian”.

Kandil added that expatriate Egyptians “have a yearning to return to Egypt, especially these days, and we hope that our love for our country will bring us together. There is no doubt that we are going through a difficult phase, but that is natural. May God make us a bridge for Egypt to move ahead.”

The huge crowds of Copts visiting St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbasiya were joined by members of the new cabinet and the heads of liberal and civil parties. Islamist parties were a no-show, but the presence of Kamal Al-Halabawi, a former leading figure of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), was noteworthy. As soon as he entered he announced: “May God extend our life until we see Egypt a strong country that treats its citizens equally.”

“I want to remind Muslims that extending greetings is a duty and not haram as rumoured. The prophet [Mohamed] himself received a delegation of Christians from Najran in his mosque. We must understand Islam well and Muslims should not follow extremist and fanatic ideas. We must live with decency, justice, unity and peace until Egypt rises. This is what we are accustomed to and how we were brought up. There is no difference between Muslims and Christians.”

Minister of Sports Farouk Al-Amri said that “sport by nature brings people together and makes no distinction between religions. It is a message of love for all and is a gateway for love and belonging. We are all brothers and one.”

Leading liberal politician Mohamed Abul-Ghar said that “Egyptians are one people and one unit” and that he holds Christians, their churches and celebrations, dear, viewing them as “an outstanding symbol, part of our history and part of us, and we cannot abandon them”.

Judges Club Chairman Ahmed Al-Zend was met with loud applause from the congregation as he arrived at the Cathedral. He said Muslims and Copts together will stand up to the Muslim brotherhood, adding that “both agree on the birth of Christ” and concluding “there are no separators between the sons of the same country.”

Bishop Moussa told the Weekly that “Coptic youth are the same as all other youth in Egypt.”

“They fear nothing and only worry about Egypt’s political future, especially what shape the economy will take, whether capitalist, socialist or a third way. This concern is compounded because of the ambiguity of the current situation.”

Bishop Yoanas said that while recalling the late Pope Shenouda he was very happy to see Pope Tawadros greeting well-wishers with humility and pride. He said that no faction, individual or group can divide Egypt and that the Church, in cooperation with Al-Azhar, would continue to stand against extremism and fanaticism.

Nader Morcos, a member of the Congregational Council of Alexandria, revealed to the Weekly that private security companies had been hired to guard some churches during Christmas celebrations and that they were coordinating with the security forces that patrol the outer perimeter of churches. Morcos said that general wariness of “some extremist currents” would not impact on numbers attending celebratory Christmas services.

Pope Tawadros delegated Bishop Rafael, General Secretary of the Holy Synod, to lead Christmas mass at the cathedral in Alexandria and greet well-wishers, including governor Mohamed Atta Abbas, Major General Abdel-Mawgoud Lotfi, the security chief, top security and executive officials as well as representative of political and popular groups.

Meanwhile, the army announced it had foiled an attempt to attack Rafah church. Three army patrols spotted two cars between the church and a military unit under construction. One car fled the scene with a group of masked men while a search of the second car uncovered four sacks of TNT, two automatic guns, five electric detonators, an RPG launcher and RPG grenade. The army is combing the area for the second car.

Despite the bad weather Copts attended Christmas services in massive numbers. A recent fire at Mar Girgis Church in Hadayek Al-Kobba did not affect the celebrations. Mass was held inside the church’s burnt atrium and worshippers donated funds for renovations.

Christmas celebrations took place under tight security in the Upper Egyptian village of Al-Kosheh — better known as the “village of martyrs” — where sectarian clashes occurred at the beginning of the millennium. The majority of residents are Copts: Father Athnasius told the Weekly they traditionally receive their Muslim brethren from surrounding villages during religious celebrations.

He added that Pope Tawadros was keen on sending a reassuring message to all Copts by saying: “Fear nothing”.

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