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Coptic Crises Pour Dampener on Orthodox Christian Celebrations in Egypt

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- Christmas came to Egypt under a cloud on Friday. The capital's grand Coptic Orthodox cathedral was not decorated with the usual festive lights and red carpets after a series of incidents that highlighted tension between the country's Christians and Muslim majority.

An alleged attempt to convert a Coptic Christian woman to Islam enraged young Copts last month and sparked days of protests and stone-throwing at the cathedral in Abbasiya, Cairo. Two dozen police were injured and 34 Copts detained.

The prosecutor general released the Copts in a goodwill gesture ahead of Christmas, which Copts celebrate by the Julian Calendar on Jan. 7, and declared the woman had not gone through with the conversion. But the affair put a dampener on this year's festivities.

"How can we celebrate at this time when the government arrests our people?" said Naguib Gobrail, the president of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations.

The head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, repeatedly blew his nose and coughed during a 30-minute sermon in Thursday's midnight mass at the cathedral. He chose not to mention the arrests, alleged conversion, and complaints of discrimination against Copts.

Instead, the pope told his unusually small congregation of about 2,000 of the virtues of Jesus Christ, particularly his restraint.

"He was silent at times, and he spoke at times. When he spoke, he gave advice and useful words," Shenouda said of Jesus. "And when he was silent, his silence was more eloquent than his words."

Shenouda did not elaborate, but he appeared to indicate that silence was an effective form of protest. The sermon was attended by Cabinet ministers and President Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal, who is touted as the next president.

Copts represent about 10 percent of Egypt's 70 million people and generally live in harmony with Muslims. But Copts are under-represented in the upper ranks of the civil service, and they complain of discrimination in the job market and in obtaining permits to build churches.

"We can't get jobs. We can't build our churches. They arrest our people. How is this fair?" said a member of the cathedral congregation, Hani Makram, 18, a commerce student.

On Dec. 29, a Muslim student was killed in Demshaw Hashem, a village in the southern province of Minya, after police fired warning shots to disperse Muslim protesters trying to storm a home belonging to two Coptic brothers. The brothers wanted to convert the building into a church and encourage Christians to pray there.

Police escorted Copts in the village Thursday as they went to the main church to celebrate Christmas.

"Copts are suffering from being denied their basic right to build places of worship by discriminatory legislation that makes it easier for Muslims to build mosques than Christians to build churches," said Youssef Sidhom, the editor of the Coptic newspaper Watani.

But Sidhom said the release of the 34 Copts detained in Cairo, and the news that the woman at the heart of the conversion saga would remain a Copt, meant that Copts had reason to celebrate this Christmas.

"I find no reason to give the appearance that we are mourning because the issues we were going through ended in a happy way," he said.

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