COPTIC Christmas in Egypt passed off last weekend without serious incident, amid tight official security, reinforced by protection committees formed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Although Copts were relieved that there was no violence, celebrations were muted as Christians took stock of the way Egypt is moving fast towards a future where Islam will be playing a more influential part in all aspects of life.
This has been demonstrated in the parliamentary elections by the success of the political party that represents the Muslim Brotherhood, and by the surprising number of votes won by the ultra-conservative Salafis (News, 2 December).
Many Copts said that they were nervous about attending church services and other Christmas festivities — memories of acts of violence directed against them in the past are still raw. On New Year’s Eve 2010, 21 people were killed when a car bomb exploded outside a church in Alexandria as worshipers were leaving mass (News, 7 January 2011).
But Copts were assured by the Muslim Brotherhood that this year they would be safe. The Islamists announced towards the end of last month that they had set up committees “to protect the churches so that the hands of sin do not ruin the festivities like they did several times under the old regime”.
The Muslim Brotherhood also urged “the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] and the police to protect the churches in the same way they protected polling stations during the elections”.
There is a strong belief in Egypt that some of the attacks on Christian targets in the past were instigated by the Interior Ministry of former President Hosni Mubarak, in order to justify crackdowns on Islamic groups. But since the revolution, attacks have continued.
Some have been perpetrated by Salafists. But in the most serious incident, last October, the Egyptian security forces opened fire on and deliberately drove military vehicles over a crowd of Copts who were demonstrating outside the state television building in Cairo (News, 14 October). More than 20 Christians were killed.
In a gesture of reconciliation, the Coptic authorities invited members of SCAF to attend midnight mass. Ten officers accepted the invitation.
But the move was not welcomed by all Copts. Many still feel angry about the killings outside the television building, and anti-military chants could be heard during Pope Shenouda’s sermon.
Bishop Aziz Mina, from Upper Egypt, said that he welcomed the success of the Islamists, “because it’s the people’s choice. . . But they will be making a big mistake if they exclude a certain segment of Egyptian society.”