CHRISTMAS for the Coptic community in Egypt passed off peacefully, amid tight security and unprecedented displays of solidarity from Muslims. The car-bombing of a church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve, in which 23 people were killed (News, 7 January), had led to fear of attacks on 6 and 7 January when Copts celebrated Christmas.
Security around churches was increased: rows of armed police stood several ranks deep outside places of worship. Streets close to churches were blocked to prevent vehicles’ getting near. Plain-clothed security men mingled with the crowds of worshippers. As one churchgoer in Cairo commented, it was “like entering a military barracks to celebrate Christmas”.
The other unusual factor of Coptic Christmas this year was the presence of a large number of Muslims who wanted to express their sympathy and support for the Christians of Egypt. Thousands of Muslims across the country offered their services as human shields for worshippers arriving for midnight mass. Others held candlelit vigils outside churches.
President Mubarak’s two sons were among a long list of prominent Egyptians who attended midnight mass in solidarity with the Copts. Government ministers, film stars, and television presenters did the same.
The bombing in Alexandria came as a complete shock to Christians in the city because it was the one place in Egypt which had escaped sectarian tension.
“Alexandria was chosen because it was a soft target,” said a Muslim bookseller in the city, Muhammad Ayyoubi. “It was a wake-up call for all Egyptians, Muslims and well as Christians.”
Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Imam of al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, the country’s leading Islamic institution, said that Muslims had an obligation to protect churches and synagogues, as well as mosques.
Prayers were said at churches around the world last Sunday for the families of the victims of the Alexandrian bombing, in response to a call from Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, Bishop Angaelos, said that prayers were being offered “for the peace of all, Christians and Muslim alike” so that “every Egyptian may enjoy freedom and security to live and practice faith without fear of violence or terror”.
The previous day, a delegation from the World Council of Churches, led by its general secretary, the Revd Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, met the leader of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda III, to express its condolences to Egypt’s Christian community.