CAIRO: Egypt’s Christians on Saturday celebrated their first Christmas since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, amid tight security and a display of national unity to allay fears of the growing power of Islamists.
The Coptic Orthodox celebration follows an escalation in violence against the minority, an estimated 10 percent 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.
Celebrations of Orthodox Christmas began with a late night Friday Mass at Cairo’s main cathedral, which was attended by prominent figures from across Egypt’s political spectrum. They included leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group whose associated political party has won nearly half the seats in parliament.
Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, presented his greetings to Pope Shenouda at Abbassiya Cathedral, but did not attend the service itself.
Members of the ruling military council that took power after Mubarak’s Feb. 11 ouster also attended, including chief of staff Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, as well as the visiting top US diplomat for the Middle East, Jeffrey Feltman.
Coptic Pope Shenouda III commended their presence and appealed for national unity for "the sake of Egypt."
"For the first time in the history of the cathedral, it is packed with all types of Islamist leaders in Egypt," the 88-year-old pope said. "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."
"Egypt is going through a critical period of transition, but we are sure that we can do it in peace," he said.
He also hailed the "sacrifices" that the armed forces had made for the "good of Egypt and its people."
A series of attacks on churches earlier this year sent thousands of Coptic protesters into the streets, complaining that no culprits were brought to justice. In a dramatic turn, the latest of these protests in October was violently quelled by the country’s military rulers, leaving 27 people dead and sparking further outrage.
Some expressed dismay that the church should welcome military leaders, even though justice has yet to be meted out against those responsible for the killing of Coptic protesters.
During the Mass at the cathedral, the presence of top military officers angered some in the congregation, who briefly chanted "Down with military rule" before being silenced by others.
The political gains of Islamist groups who have dominated the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections have also made many nervous.
Some Christians are also taking advantage of the more open political atmosphere to assertively push demands for equal status with Muslims.
Copts have long complained of discrimination by the state and prejudice from the Muslim majority. Christians are rarely appointed to top security and government posts, and their beliefs are often savaged by radical Muslim clerics.
Absent from the Christmas celebrations were leaders of the more radical Salafi Al-Nour Party, the second largest vote-winner in the parliamentary elections. Many fear it will seek to push its ultraconservative interpretation of Islam.
Party spokesman Youssri Hamad said Islamic teachings contradict the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth, and that while his party respects Christian beliefs, its members cannot attend Christmas ceremonies or send Christmas greetings.
"This is not a party matter. This is an order from God," he said. He said his party did offer volunteers to protect the churches during the celebrations.
The Brotherhood leaders left the cathedral before Mass began.
Heavy security had ringed churches around Egypt, with police and army troops manning streets leading to the churches. Volunteers from youth groups had also offered to provide security.
An attack on a church in Alexandria a year ago on New Year’s Eve left 21 people dead and shook the community. The culprits for the attack are still not known, further fueling the outrage of Copts.
The show of national unity at the Mass follows efforts since the October protest deaths by both Egyptian political parties and the church leadership to calm religious tensions.
But many Christians are left cold by military officers and opposition politicians who may be eager to be photographed next to a cleric, but unwilling to address Coptic grievances.
At the Cathedral, the pope made no mention of the uprising, only referring to the "tough transition" Egypt was going through. But at an evangelical church near Tahrir Square, the epicenter of protests against both Mubarak and the military, activists and protesters attended a service on Friday in which the pastor commemorated the "sorrow and the sacrifice" of Egypt’s revolutionaries.
A prominent activist, Ahmed Harara, who lost the sight in both his eyes during the uprising against Mubarak and in protests against the military was given a standing ovation. Feltman also attended the service.
In the southern province of Assiut, security officials said six masked assailants kidnapped three Coptic Christians early Saturday as they celebrated Christmas in a friend’s house in a small village of Kambuha.
The officials did not believe the abductions were religiously driven, and the abductors asked for a hefty ransom of $250,000. The three men are from well-off families.
Security forces later freed the three men after storming the house where they were held, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
US President Barack Obama called on Friday for the protection of Copts and other minorities.
"As events in Egypt and elsewhere have illustrated… the protection of people of all faiths, and the ability to worship as you choose are critical to a peaceful, inclusive and thriving society," he said in a statement.
"I want to reaffirm the commitment of the United States to work for the protection of Christian and other religious minorities around the world," Obama added.
The Copts follow their own ancient calendar under which Christmas Day falls on January 7. –Additional reporting by AFP