(CNSNews.com) – Egypt’s Copts celebrated Coptic Christmas on Tuesday in an atmosphere of cautious optimism, five months after the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood government triggered a surge of Islamist attacks against churches.
No incidents were reported as Copts attended mass under heavy security. In Cairo’s St. Mark’s Cathedral, where midnight mass was led by Coptic Pope Tawadros II, security officials were posted both outside and inside the church.
Two days earlier, Egypt’s interim president Adly Mansour visited the cathedral to wish Tawadros marry Christmas, a visit which Egyptian media said was the first of its kind since President Gamal Abdel-Nasser attended the inauguration of the then new cathedral, in 1968.
Ashraf Ramelah, president of Voice of the Copts, commented on the significance of Mansour’s visit.
“The visit is seen in optimistic terms as a genuine act of respect conducted by the president of Egypt on behalf of the country toward Coptic citizens – a true turning point for Copts (who to this point have been completely ignored by Egypt’s presidents on Christian holidays),” he said.
Ramelah said the visit, together with Christmas greetings by army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, government ministers and others, were “a far cry from past Christmases marred by bloodshed committed by Muslim thugs motivated by jihad with the blind eye of law enforcement and the courts.”
“This is a major step toward basic decency, if not equality. However, in spite of this pleasantry, Copts have a legitimate fear of attending churches regarded as potential targets on the most sacred of days.”
Copts, who like other Orthodox denominations celebrate Christmas on January 7 based of the ancient Julian calendar, comprise the majority of Egypt’s Christian minority. They and other Christians have long endured discrimination and intolerance in the Arab world’s largest country, but the 2011 ousting of the Mubarak regime worsened an already difficult situation.
When Egypt’s military stepped in last July to remove the one year-old Muslim Brotherhood administration of President Mohammed Morsi and then cracked down on his protesting supporters, some Islamists vented their anger on Christians.
Tawadros supported Morsi’s removal from office – as did millions of Egyptian Muslims. But Christians proved an easy target, and senior Muslim Brotherhood figures accused Copts of complicity in the military takeover.
In an apparently coordinated campaign, churches came under attack in many parts of the country.
In a report last October Amnesty International said 43 churches and more than 200 Christian-owned properties were attacked during that episode, and at least four people killed.
During the Christmas Eve midnight mass at St. Marks, Tawadros expressed gratitude by name to public figures who had brought greetings. The Al-Ahram newspaper reported that the most enthusiastic applause came when the pope mentioned al-Sisi, the general who ousted the Muslim Brotherhood administration on July 3, and is widely expected to run for the presidency in elections due to be held sometime this year.
President Obama in a statement wished Copts in the U.S. and around the world a joyous Christmas and peace in the coming year.
“During this season, we reaffirm the commitment of the United States to work for the protection of Christians and other people of faith in Egypt and around the world,” he said. “The freedom to practice our faiths is critical to stable, pluralistic, and thriving societies, and the United States will continue to be vigilant in its work to protect that freedom.”
On Monday the U.S. Embassy in Cairo advised American citizens in Egypt to exercise caution, “particularly if visiting Coptic churches over the next 48 hours.”
“There have been violent attacks on these churches as recently as August 2013, thus warranting extreme caution and careful consideration of security when visiting these institutions on holidays and anniversaries.”
The embassy advisory also warned Americans to “avoid areas where large gatherings may occur. Even demonstrations or events intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence.”
Protests by Morsi supporters have been building recently ahead of the resumption Wednesday of the trial in which the ousted former president faces charges relating to the death of protesters outside his presidential palace in December 2012.
Another current development with potential for further violence is a referendum on a new constitution, which was drawn up after Morsi’s ouster to replace a 2012 constitution drafted by a body dominated by Islamists.
The referendum marks the first time Egyptians will vote since Morsi’s removal, and is therefore seen as an important indicator of support, or otherwise, for the military-installed interim government and transition process.
The vote is scheduled for next Tuesday and Wednesday, while Egyptian nationals abroad are able to vote at Egyptian diplomatic missions between now and Sunday.
A pro-Morsi group called the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy and Oppose the Coup has called for protests on Wednesday to coincide with the resumption of his trial, and is urging Egyptians to reject the new draft constitution.