Egypt's Copts celebrate Christmas amid political uncertainty

While relieved to be rid of a Muslim Brotherhood government, the Christian minority remains unsure of its future

Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Church of Egypt, left, leads a midnight Mass on the eve of Orthodox Christmas at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo in 2013.
Amr Nabil/AP Images

Last year’s Coptic Christmas saw the Muslim Brotherhood in power and its political party send envoys to wish Egypt’s long-embattled Christian minority well. This year’s Christmas, on Tuesday, found worshipers raucously cheering Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, the military leader who overthrew the Brotherhood-backed President Mohamed Morsi in July.

These days, a new constitution is being drafted, a wave of anti-Christian violence has at least temporarily abated, and the Coptic community is breathing a tentative sigh of relief.

"I’m optimistic that this is a good step along a journey," said Bishop Angaelos, a monk from Cairo and former private secretary to the church's late Pope Shenouda III, who is the general bishop of the Coptic Church in the United Kingdom. "This is a democratic process that is going to take years to unfold."

Egypt’s Christians, who make up at least 10 percent of the population, have for decades faced government bias and sectarian violence, but the bloody new polarization between supporters of the Brotherhood and the military-backed interim government has highlighted the community’s vulnerability as a disempowered minority.

Many Christians had been wary about the success of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in the elections that followed the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, fearing that the conservative, eight-decade-old movement would have little regard for the interests of Copts. But the community, fearing reprisals, was reluctant to blatantly oppose the party, especially since Morsi’s supporters often accused Christians and phantom "church militias" of trying to undermine his administration through violence and protest.

At first, Morsi managed to walk the tightrope between his base and the Christian minority, though he broke his campaign promise to appoint a woman and a Copt as his vice presidents. But in November 2012, Morsi sparked a political crisis by issuing an extrajudicial decree authorizing him to push through a constitution viewed as deeply flawed by many Egyptians, and which enshrined certain conservative Islamic institutions.

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An even more symbolic fiasco came the following April at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, the seat of Coptic Christianity. A funeral for five Copts killed in sectarian violence turned into a street battle as angry neighborhood residents hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails and firing shotguns pinned Christian marchers inside the cathedral. Even when riot police belatedly arrived, they allowed the attack to continue and could be seen on live television firing tear gas into the cathedral compound at the prompting of local civilians. Just days earlier, a different police contingent had used tear gas to protect the Brotherhood’s headquarters from opposition demonstrators.

Morsi pledged to investigate the cathedral attack, but no one was charged. For many Copts, the incident, unprecedented in Egypt's modern history, proved that the Brotherhood-led government tacitly condoned violence against Christians. Two days afterward, Pope Tawadros II took the unusual step of criticizing Morsi directly in a television interview, accusing him of "delinquency."

"The presidency developed a sense of impunity that gave a clear message to people that they could do whatever they wanted, attack whoever they wanted, and not worry about any ramifications and not be brought to justice," Angaelos said.

When Sisi went on television to announce Morsi’s overthrow on July 3, he was joined by leading Muslim politicians and religious figures, as well as Tawadros. That alliance still was on view Tuesday morning, as Tawadros celebrated midnight Mass at St. Mark’s. Loud applause greeted his welcoming of Ahmed al-Tayyeb, leader of the country’s pre-eminent Muslim seminary, Al Azhar, who had opposed the Brotherhood and supported the coup, and the anti-Brotherhood imam Mazhar Shaheen. But the longest ovation was reserved for a Christmas greeting sent by Sisi.

How deep such support runs is impossible to tell. Publicly, church officials praise the military and police, but average Christians have complained that the state has showed little interest in protecting them.

After riot police violently cleared pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo on Aug. 14, killing more than 1,000 people, seemingly coordinated mobs destroyed more than 40 church buildings and dozens of other Christian establishments across the country — most of them in southern Egypt, which has long been the scene of violence between Muslims and Copts. Christians there say they faced a string of kidnappings for ransom in the following months, with little help from the authorities.

Angaelos said he "(felt) for" Morsi supporters who lost their lives during the government assaults and pointed out that Christians had not retaliated during the following reprisals, reflecting their "deep-seated belief" in forgiveness.

"Watching mothers lose their sons and children losing fathers, that can't sit well with anybody," he said.

But he blamed the Brotherhood leadership for encouraging its followers to put themselves in a "completely irresponsible" confrontation with the military.

Though the Interior Ministry has at least temporarily increased security around churches for the holidays, and there have been no major attacks on Christian institutions since August, extremist groups have begun a campaign of bombings and assassinations targeting the military and police.

In recent days, the Brotherhood has at times appeared to reach out to the Christian community. In an English-language statement on Tuesday, the group wished Copts a "joyous" Christmas while praying for a return to "true democracy" and a state where Egyptians can "live and work together in harmony … regardless of religious affiliation." In an Arabic statement, it called on "liberals" and others to "follow the example" of both Muhammad and Jesus and "rectify the errors and gather around the revolution." 

Many Christians would doubt the sincerity of such sentiments, and on Tuesday the official website of the Freedom and Justice Party reported, in Arabic, on the "resentment" among residents of the city of Alexandria that streets around churches had been closed for security reasons.

Whether life improves for Egypt’s Christians remains to be seen. The community is no stranger to strife, and many pride themselves on their resilience and faith. While many Copts cheered for the Brotherhood’s fall from power, some worry that the manner of its undoing may have sown seeds of future trouble and doubt that state institutions and security forces — which had permitted violence against Christians under both Mubarak and the military custodianship that followed him — will change their ways.

In December, one Copt received a life sentence and two others received 15 years in prison for the violence that prompted the April 2013 funeral at the cathedral, while the eight Muslims who were convicted received sentences ranging from six months to five years.

"Will there be a continuation of terrorist activity?" said Angaelos. "I think so, because I think there is still a desire to destabilize the country. The police is restoring a little bit of its credibility. After the 25th of January (2011) ... police were completely discredited, and they fled and disappeared for quite a while … so I'm hoping that they would never want to go back to being discredited again."

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