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Egyptian Christians mark sad Christmas Eve Mass

Friday, January 7, 2011

CAIRO -- Egypt's Christians packed churches Thursday for mournful Christmas Eve Masses, weeping and donning black in place of colorful holiday clothes, under a heavy security cordon by police out of fear of another attack like the New Year's suicide bombing of a church that killed 21 people.

At church gates around the country, police and church staff checked the IDs of those entering the services -- and their wrists, where many Egyptian Christians bear the tattoo of a cross.

Al-Qaida in Iraq had threatened Christians in Iraq and Egypt in the weeks leading up to the holidays and Saturday's deadly bombing. Militant websites have even posted names and addresses of churches in Egypt to target, raising fears of a follow-up attack on celebrations of the Orthodox Christmas, which Egypt's Coptic Christian minority marks today.

Still, turnout was heavy, as Christians said they were determined to attend. Muslims also joined some services as a show of solidarity, getting permission from church officials ahead of time to get through police limiting access to Christians.

Struggling with healing

The two faiths were struggling to find some kind of healing after the deadliest attack on the minority community in a decade. Saturday's attack unleashed a wave of fury by Copts over what they say is deep anti-Christian sentiment among Muslims and the state's failure to address it and protect Christians. For days afterward, Copts clashed with police in unusually fierce riots, and there was concern of new unrest after Thursday's Mass.

But healing was hard to come by, with some Copts skeptical anything will change.

"Some Muslims are good people," said Raymonda Ramzy, a 45-year-old worshipper dressed in black entering Mass at the main Coptic Church in the Cairo district of Giza. "But even on my way here, a couple of young men shouted at me, 'God take you all and rid us of you.'"

While some worried about attending services for fear of attack, she said, "I never hesitated. I wish I could die in church."

State TV gave heavy coverage to the Christmas Eve Mass to promote a sense of unity. As it has in past years, it broadcast live Pope Shenouda III leading prayers and delivering his sermon at Cairo's Coptic Cathedral. The 87-year-old head of the Coptic Church recited the prayers in a tired-sounding, cracking voice.

He gave his condolences "to our sons in Alexandria and in several other countries for the martyrdom of innocent people."

"I echo President [Hosni] Mubarak's remark that the blood of our sons is not cheap," the pope said.

Mubarak's two sons, several Egyptian government ministers and foreign diplomats attended the service.

This year, the ceremony was also preceded by a live discussion by a team of prominent TV hosts and newscasters, all dressed in black, standing on the cathedral steps and speaking of the bonds between Muslims and Christians. A tiny logo of an intersecting cross and crescent was set in the corner of the screen. Christmas was declared a national holiday several years ago, in a nod by the government to inclusiveness.

"Today, I don't say I'm Muslim or I'm Christian," one of the hosts pronounced. "I say, I'm Egyptian."

But many Copts are jaded by routine expressions of unity repeated after previous violence. Egypt's Coptic Christian minority makes up 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million people but complains of widespread discrimination they say relegates them to second-class citizen status. There has been growing anti-Christian violence in past years, mostly shootings or clashes between Christians and Muslims in villages.

Saturday's attack was qualitatively different, the first ever such suicide bombing targeting Christians in Egypt, raising concern that al-Qaida may have a role, though investigators suspect a homegrown group likely carried it out. The blast hit a crowd of worshippers leaving a midnight Mass at the Saints Church in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, killing 21 and wounding nearly 100.

In the southern province of Minya, a worker at a church on Thursday found a small explosive device packed with nails and fireworks planted under the building's stairs, a security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media. He said the device appeared to have been put there to "test security measures."

At the Saints Church in Alexandria, a line of riot police stood at each end of the street. A stream of black-clad worshippers flowed in and bells rang as Mass began. Blood splatters remained on some of the walls inside. Police or church staffers asked those entering to show either a cross tattoo or an ID, which denote religion, to prove they were Christian.

Around two dozen Muslims held a solidarity gathering a street away from the Saints Church -- kept back by police. They held signs reading "no to terrorism, yes to citizenship" and "long live the cross and the crescent."

Across the country, police were preventing vehicles from parking near churches. The Interior Ministry asked church officials to prevent crowds from gathering in front of churches after Mass -- apparently to avoid providing a large target for attack, but perhaps also to avoid a new outbreak of protests. At the Cairo cathedral, security officers with walkie-talkies fanned out across the streets surrounding the cathedral, and metal detectors were set up at the entrances.

At many of the normally festive services, a somber mood reigned. At the main Giza church, no flowers or red carpet were laid out at the entrance as they usually are for the holiday, and women and children who would normally be decked out in festive holiday colors wore black.

"I don't intend to celebrate. I will not go out with my friends tomorrow as I have always done," said Mina Nabil, a 24-year-old engineering student at the Virgin Mary Church in Shubra, a Cairo district where Coptic rioting broke out in the days after the attack.

"A lot is being said about national unity and I hope it is not just talk this time around," he said.

Inside a church in the Cairo suburb of Maadi, several Muslims joined the service, holding candles.

"I wanted to do anything," said Hanan Mahfouz, a young woman in a Muslim headscarf. "Coming here seemed like the least I could do."

The front pew at a church in the Cairo district of Omraniya was filled with prominent Muslims from the neighborhood. Women in Islamic headscarves sat near Christian women in the headcoverings they don in church. Many women sobbed heavily during the service. Omraniya was the scene of fierce Christian riots in November that left two dead, sparked when police stopped construction work at the church.

In his sermon, Father Hanna thanked the Muslims for attending, adding, "This is the way our Egypt climbs new heights and become prosperous."

But many Copts remained bitter and skeptical that the bloody attack would really bring change.

"It's worse than before," said Marina Sammy, a young woman at the Saints Church whose family owns a store in Alexandria. "The events haven't improved attitudes at all. We've been attacked and insulted and our store windows were broken. There's no security at all."

Diana Maher, at the Giza church, acknowledged the attempts to heal the rifts. But she said her own feelings toward Muslims had become stained with resentment and suspicion.

"At work, my Muslim colleagues and I say hello," she said. "But the first day back after the attack, I avoided them."


AP correspondent Paul Schemm contributed to this report from Alexandria.


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