Egypt’s Christians celebrate Christmas tight security
CAIRO - Egypt's Christians celebrated Saturday their first Christmas after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, amid tight security and a display of national unity to allay fears of the growing power of Islamists.
The Coptic Orthodox celebration follows an escalation in violence against the minority, an estimated 10 percent of Egypt's 85 million people, over the past year.
US President Barack Obama called Friday for the protection of Coptics and other minorities as the Christian group celebrated its first post-revolution Christmas in Egypt.
"As events in Egypt and elsewhere have illustrated... the protection of people of all faiths, and the ability to worship as you choose are critical to a peaceful, inclusive and thriving society," Obama said in a statement on the celebration of Coptic Christmas.
A massive plan to protect Egyptian churches swung into action ahead of the Christmas eve mass lead by Pope Shenuda III in Cairo's Abbassiya Cathedral, with Islamist leaders attending for the first time.
"The interior ministry has drawn up a huge security plan in cooperation with the armed forces to protect all the churches of Egypt at Christmas," a security official said.
Celebrations of Orthodox Christmas began with a late night Friday Mass at Cairo's main cathedral, which was attended by prominent figures from across Egypt's political spectrum. They included leaders of Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group whose associated political party has won nearly half the seats in parliament.
Members of the ruling military council that took power after Mubarak's Feb. 11 ouster also attended, including chief of staff Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, as well as the visiting top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Jeffrey Feltman.
Coptic Pope Shenouda III commended their presence and appealed for national unity for "the sake of Egypt."
"For the first time in the history of the cathedral, it is packed with all types of Islamist leaders in Egypt," the 88-year old pope said. "They all agree ... on the stability of this country and in loving it, and working for it and to work with the Copts as one hand for the sake of Egypt."
The measures come a year after more than 20 people were killed in an apparent suicide bombing targeting a church in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. In 2010, six Copts were killed as they emerged from a Christmas eve mass in southern Egypt.
Muslim and Christian activists have planned candle light vigils outside several churches under the slogan "We all celebrate together as Egyptians."
But a group of Coptic activists has called for muted celebrations this year.
The Union of Maspero Youth said that they urged the church not to accept any greetings this year out of respect for the families of those who died in protests last year, they said in a statement posted on Facebook.
In October, 25 people, most of them Copts, died as they were protesting against an attack on a church when clashes broke out with soldiers outside the state television's building.
The Christmas eve mass, which traditionally ends at midnight, is set to take place two hours earlier this year for security reasons, a security official said.
For the first time, the service will be attended by Islamist groups -- propelled to the centre stage of politics after a popular uprising ousted veteran president Hosni Mubarak in February.
The powerful Muslim Brotherhood -- long banned under Mubarak -- is to send its number two, Mahmud Ezzat, while the group's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, will be represented by its leader Mohammed Mursi, the group said.
Last week, the Brotherhood announced it had set up popular committees to protect churches during the Christmas period "so that the hands of sin do not ruin the festivities like they did several times under the old regime."
Coptic Christians, who make up around 10 percent of Egypt's 82 million population, have been the target of frequent attacks and complain of systematic discrimination.
Last year, more than 20 people were killed in an apparent suicide bombing as hundreds of worshippers were leaving the Al-Qidissin (The Saints) church in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria after a New Year's eve mass.
In January 2010, six Copts were shot dead as they emerged from a Coptic Christmas Eve mass. A Muslim security guard was also killed in the shooting.
The Middle East's largest Christian community has also become increasingly concerned about the rise of Islamist political influence since the uprising that toppled Mubarak.
The Freedom and Justice Party, has emerged as the front-runner in the first post-revolution parliamentary elections.
The largest party representing the more hardline Salafist movement, Al-Nur, has come a close runner-up in the first two rounds of polling.
The Copts follow their own ancient calendar under which Christmas Day falls on January 7.