Egypt’s Coptic Christians celebrated Christmas on Saturday amid tight security, looking over their shoulders at the violence they have suffered in recent years and ahead, as Islamists emerge as the dominant force in the new parliament.
Pope Shenuda III celebrated a midnight liturgy in Cairo’s Abbassiya Cathedral that was attended by members of Egypt’s ruling military council, including chief of staff General Sami Anan.
The elaborate service went off without a hitch, raising a collective sigh of relief from the Coptic community of some eight million people, which was the target of deadly attacks after midnight services two years ago and after a New Year’s Eve liturgy last year.
Coptic churches, homes, businesses and individuals have also been targeted in the months following the revolt that ousted president Hosni Mubarak in February.
Soher Hana, leaving one Cairo church after mass, said “Christians don’t feel safe. They thought the revolution would herald better times, but it has been the opposite.”
Last year, more than 20 people were killed in an apparent suicide bombing as hundreds of worshippers were leaving Al-Qidissin (The Saints) church in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria after a New Year’s Eve service.
In January 2010, six Copts and a Muslim security guard were shot dead as they emerged from a Christmas Eve service.
This year, a massive security plan was launched.
Police and troops were deployed outside churches and surrounding streets, while all those attending services were put through security checks.
The Christmas Eve mass, which traditionally ends at midnight, also took place two hours earlier this year for security reasons.
In his homily, Pope Shenuda said “Egypt is going through a critical period of transition, but we are sure that we can do it in peace.”
He also hailed the “sacrifices” that the armed forces had made for the “good of Egypt and its people.”
In October 2011, 25 people, most of them Copts, died in clashes with soldiers outside the state television building in Cairo where they were protesting against an attack on a church.
For the first time, Islamist groups — propelled to the centre stage of politics after Mubarak stepped down — also made an appearance.
Mohammed Mursi, leader of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, presented his greetings to Pope Shenuda at Abbassiya Cathedral, but did not attend the service itself.
In addition to the deadly attacks of recent years, Coptic Christians, who make up around 10 percent of Egypt’s 82 million population, complain of systematic discrimination.
The Middle East’s largest Christian community has also become increasingly concerned about the rise of Islam as a political force since the mass protests that toppled Mubarak.
The Freedom and Justice Party has emerged as the front-runner in the first post-revolution parliamentary elections, followed by the Al-Nur party of the ultra-conservative Salafists.
The two main Islamist parties claimed on Saturday to have together taken 62.2 percent of the vote in the final stage of a general election, maintaining their overall lead, after chalking up 65 percent in the first two phases of the vote.
Worshipper Fayez Abdo said the “Muslim Brotherhood is trying to speak in a balanced way, but statements by the Salafists that Christians are infidels and should not hold public office frighten us.”
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.