By Heba Fahmy
CAIRO: Muslims joined Christians in celebrating Coptic Christmas in churches throughout Cairo on Thursday night and, under tight security measures, prayed side-by-side for the safety of Egypt.
At Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Abbasiya, Pope Shenouda III — the head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church — gave his sermon in the presence of a large quantity of ministers, government officials, Islamic scholars, celebrities, and foreign diplomats.
President Hosni Mubarak’s two sons — Alaa and Gamal — both attended the sermon, as did many others, in order to help represent the unity that exists among Egyptians.
State TV provided heavy coverage of the Christmas Eve Mass in order to promote a sense of unity. As in past years, it broadcasted Pope Shenouda III live as he led prayers and delivered his sermon. Shenouda, 87, sounded tired, with his voice cracking as he recited prayers.
He offered his condolences to “our sons in Alexandria — and in several other countries — for the martyrdom of innocent people.”
“I echo President Mubarak’s [statement] that the blood of our sons is not cheap,” Shenouda said.
This year, the ceremony was also preceded by a live discussion by a team of prominent TV hosts and newscasters — all of whom were dressed in black — who spoke about the bonds between Muslims and Christians while standing on the steps of the cathedral. A tiny logo picturing a cross linked with a crescent was displayed in the corner of the screen during the broadcast.
“Today, I don’t say I’m Muslim or I’m Christian,” one of the hosts pronounced. “I say I’m Egyptian.”
Dozens of police were deployed to guard Al-Qeddesine (The Church of Two Saints) in Alexandria that day, which was targeted in the attack on Saturday that left 23 people dead and more than 90 injured.
“We celebrate Christmas, but we are sad,” said Ramez Magdi, a Copt engineer.
“To survive, we Copts must confront our fear and pain,” said Maureen, 27, dressed in all black. “We have to be stronger than the terrorists. That’s why I am coming to Mass.”
“Our sorrow is great,” said Maher, 50, after arriving at the Mass with his wife and two daughters. “But we feel stronger because of the support of our Muslim compatriots.”
Despite fears of another attack, there was heavy turnout for the Mass service. Many Christians stated they were determined to attend the Mass, and were joined by Muslim attendees who attended some of the service in order to express their feelings of solidarity with Coptic Christians.
“Some Muslims are good people,” said Raymonda Ramzy, 45, dressed in black as she arrived at a Coptic Church in Giza to attend mass. “But even on my way here, a couple of young men shouted at me, ‘God take you all and rid us of you.’”
While some worried about attending Mass out of fears that another attack would take place, Ramzy said: “I never hesitated. I wish I could die in church.”
Security officials said at least 70,000 officers and conscripts had been deployed across the country to secure churches on Christmas Ever as Copts — who account for 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million — attended Mass.
Security prevented large groups from gathering in front of churches to help prevent any attacks that could occur. Some observers stated that the decision was partially aimed at curtailing possible protests. Several media and online initiatives had called for Muslims to attend Christmas Masses in churches to demonstrate Egyptian solidarity. Other initiatives even called for Muslims to stand outside the churches during Mass to act as human shields.
Police and church staff checked attendees’ identification cards — which denote religion — as well as people’s wrists, where many Egyptian Christians bear the tattoo of a cross.
Vehicles were blocked from parking near churches, which were being tightly monitored by explosive detection teams and policemen, a police official said.
Police stated that a primitive explosive device — a tin can filled with firecrackers, nails and bolts, but no detonator — had been found inside a church in the southern city of Minya.
In Moqattam, an impoverished Cairo district with a large Coptic population, residents said the threat of further attacks would not deter them from going to church.
“With Al-Qaeda’s threats, we anticipate further attacks, but we are not afraid,” said Adel Al-Wazir. “God protects us.”
The front pew at a church in the Cairo district of Omraneya was filled with prominent Muslims from the neighborhood. Women in Islamic headscarves sat near Christian women in headcoverings that they typically wear in church services. Many women sobbed heavily during the service.
Omraneya was the scene of fierce Christian riots in November that left two people dead. The riots were sparked when police attempted to halt the construction of a Coptic community center.
In his sermon, Father Hanna thanked the Muslims for attending, stating that “this is the way our Egypt climbs new heights and become prosperous.”
“A lot is being said about national unity,” Hanna added. “I hope it is not just talk this time around.”
At the Cleopatra Church in Heliopolis, security forces and church administrators warmly welcomed the Muslims who wanted to attend Mass. Attendees had their ID cards checked and passed through metal detectors before entering the church.
“I was [surprised] by the amount of security when I first arrived to [the Cleopatra] church, but this is a good thing,” Ramy Rimon, a petroleum engineer, told Daily News Egypt. “It means the government has taken necessary precautions [to prevent another attack].”
“It’s sad that we have to have this much security to be safe in Egypt,” Daniel, a dentist, told Daily News Egypt. “But still, I consider this is the best [Coptic] Christmas I’ve ever had, because we’re [Copts and Muslims] celebrating it together.”
At the end of Mass, church administrators allowed Muslim attendees to speak openly to those in attendance and to express their feelings towards the attack on the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria.
“We [Muslims] love you, and no matter what happens, we will always be united,” said Amira Fathi, one of the Muslims in attendance.
Khaled, another Muslim attendee, said, “It’s an honor to be among you today and [to] celebrate [Coptic] Christmas with you.”
Muslim and Christian attendees stood together to pray for a safer Egypt and for the preservation of unity among all Egyptians.
“We are sure that this was a terrorist attack that has nothing to do with sectarian tensions,” Rimon told Daily News Egypt. “It targeted Egypt, not just the Copts.”
“We were honored to have Muslims attend the celebration with us today,” Salwa, an employee at Misr Bank, told Daily News Egypt. “We love the [Muslims] and we are all brothers and sisters.”
The Copts and Muslims said they weren’t afraid to attend the Christmas celebration in church, following the attack.
“I wasn’t worried at all, and the thought of not attending the celebration didn’t even cross my mind,” Mona Sami, a teacher, told Daily News Egypt.
For security reasons, the Mass ended at around 10 pm rather than at midnight.
“I hope this unity won’t last for only today and then pass,” Amira, an engineer, told Daily News Egypt. “I hope this will always be our attitude.”
There were some reports of churches preventing Muslims from attending sermons with Christians due to security measures, as was the purportedly the case at El Maraashly Church in Zamalek. –Additional reporting by Agencies.
Alaa (L) and Gamal (C) Mubarak sons of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, attend the Christmas Eve Mass at the Coptic cathedral in Cairo, Jan. 6, 2011. Other government officials, including Minister of Finance Youssef Boutrous Ghali (2nd-R) and Chief of Presidential Staff Zakaria Azmi, also attended. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
A Coptic priest wafts incense during Christmas Eve Mass at the Coptic cathedral in Cairo, Jan. 6. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)