Syndicated News
Worry Taints Egyptian Coptic Christmas
By Bethany Bell

(BBC) -- Egypt's Coptic Christians are facing an uncertain future, as they prepare to celebrate Christmas on 7 January. About 10% of Egyptians are Copts, making up the largest Christian minority in the Middle East.

But many are concerned about the rise of President Mohammad Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical Salafis. And there are fears that the newly approved constitution fails to protect the rights of Christians.

On a rooftop in Shubra on the outskirts of Cairo, a children's Christmas party was in full swing.

A man dressed up as Santa Claus, with a sack of presents on his back, walked on to a small stage under a painting of St George and the Dragon.

The children, a class of little boys, screamed in delight and started chanting "Baba Noel", the Arabic name for Father Christmas.

The party was taking place on top of a non-descript building, which houses the Coptic Church of the Virgin and St Mina in Shubra.

It was a brief moment of respite for the Coptic community, which is deeply concerned about the growing power of the Islamists in Egypt.

Nasser Abu Ghaly, a teacher helping to organise the party, says feelings this Christmas are mixed.

"First, we don't fear. But now we are a bit afraid because of our kids and our households. But as Copts we have the rights to pray to our God." 'Things are tense'

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and of the more radical Salafi Islamist groups has unsettled many Christians in Egypt.

Since the revolution, television sermons by hardline Salafi preachers targeting Christians are becoming more common. In recent days, some have called for Muslims not to greet Christians at Christmas.

Others are more sinister. One cleric, Said Abdulazzim, recorded on YouTube, said that "any Muslim who befriends a Christian or a Sufi, neither of whom ever tell the truth, is misguided, a traitor".

Some wealthy Copts are choosing to leave Egypt. But for many, like the congregation in Shubra, that is simply not an option.

The Church of the Virgin and St Mina is in a poor area. The streets are unpaved and every few metres there are mounds of rotting rubbish.

It is in places like this that many of Egypt's Christians live, side-by-side with their Muslim neighbours.

The church can barely house its huge congregation. At services, many worshippers have to stand outside in the stairwell.

But the priest at the Church, Father Felopater Rateb Towfiles, says that when they recently tried to build a new community centre, they were blocked by a group of local Salafis.

"Things are tense in the area, we have to tread carefully," he said.

"We thank God that we were able to prevent clashes between Christians and Salafis. If it had not been for this wisdom and the interference of God, there would have been massacres.

"Our people are unarmed but they have weapons. They had ammunition, automatic weapons and modern arms - we saw with our own eyes, the huge collection." Toward an Islamic state?

The political upheaval of recent weeks has also added to Christian concerns. There are fears that Egypt's vaguely worded new constitution could pave the way for an Islamic state.

But Mohamed Soudan from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party says the constitution protects all Egyptians, regardless of their religion.

"I believe they don't have any reason to be afraid of the future. We love each other," he said.

"Nothing will attack the history of the relationship between the Muslims and the Christians. They are part of our blood. No-one can change it. They are not coming from abroad.

"They are from this soil and we are from this soil. They eat from the same soil and we are the same. No-one can touch this - never."

But Youssef Sidhom, the editor of the Coptic Watani newspaper, says Christians are worried by the charter.

"Of course, they are quite concerned and I cannot hide that a few wouldn't hesitate to leave if they have the chance. There is a vast area of mistrust that lies between Christians and all factions of political Islam," he says.

Mr Sidhom says he wants to believe President Morsi's promise of national dialogue after the approval of the constitution.

"I hope he fulfils this commitment and that Egypt, rather than being dragged to the verge of a civil war, will be pushed towards reconciliation."

The Copts have been at home in Egypt for almost two thousand years and they are proud of the biblical story, which tells how Mary and Joseph fled into Egypt with the baby Jesus.

But these days some are wondering if they need their own place of refuge.

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