Egypt's Coptic Christians Celebrate Christmas Amid Fear, Hope

Coptic Christians in Egypt celebrated their Christmas on Tuesday in an atmosphere of uncertainty. There were dozens of attacks on churches and Christian homes both during and after the tenure of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Coptic leaders publicly supported the military coup that ousted Morsi.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Egypt is another African country where the U.S. has deep ties but where there has been plenty of turmoil.

Let's focus on one community that found a bit of holiday peace there. It was Christmas yesterday for Egypt's large population of Coptic Christians. Following the military coup last summer that ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, there was a wave of attacks on Christians. But as they mark the holiday yesterday, many said they're beginning to feel more hopeful that their country's political situation is turning in their favor.

NPR's Leila Fadel sent this report.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Christmas eve mass began at 8PM at this small Coptic church in Cairo. Young women flaunted new clothes, and flipped their freshly coifed hair as they walked into church. People purchased round loaves of bread used for communion.

And Rafiq Samy took a picture of his toddler and his wife in front of the nativity scene in the church courtyard.

RAFIQ SAMY: I think, number one, that all Christians will pray for is our peace, our country peace actually, then our peace of mind, because we miss this also, through the last three years.

FADEL: And despite the broad crackdown on Islamists and critics of the military-backed government, Samy believes the coup was a blessing that will lead Egypt to prosperity and stability. The future, he says, will be brighter.

SAMY: I see that the light is coming on.

FADEL: It is a sentiment repeated by many here at the Boutroseya Church on Christmas Eve. Egypt's interim president made a historic visit to the Coptic pope to wish him a Merry Christmas this year. The first such visit since the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

And at the main cathedral, Pope Tawadros II reassured the community in his sermon broadcast on television.

POPE TAWADROS II: (Through Translator) If we are going through rough times, then we should be sure that they will be followed by better days.

FADEL: It has been a tough three years for Egypt, political turmoil, instability, sporadic violence and sharp economic decline. And minority communities, like the Christians, who make up at least 10 percent of Egypt's more than 80 million people, have at times felt the pressure most intensely.

Following Morsi's ouster, at least 50 churches were attacked. Many Islamists scape-goated Christians, accusing them of being the driving force behind the coup. Christians blamed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood for the violence. But there is no proof that the Brotherhood organized the attacks.

On Monday night, outside the main cathedral where the pope gave midnight mass, army tanks lined up, roads were blocked and police patrolled.

Christians in Egypt have long suffered injustice. They can't build churches without presidential permission. This may change if Egyptians vote in a new constitution later this month. And for decades, Egypt's leaders have glossed over religious violence. Just months after the 2011 revolution, Egyptian troops attacked Christian protesters in Cairo, leaving more than two dozen dead. Later Egyptian state television called on honorable citizens to protect the army from the Christians.

Now, analysts say, the military-backed government is trying to use the Coptic community as a pawn in its propaganda war with the Muslim Brotherhood. But analysts like Ishak Ibrahim of the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights, says the government still hasn't done enough to protect the community.

ISHAK IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: He says the government has the responsibility to protect all Egyptians, and their responsibility doubles when it comes to Christian Egyptians, because they have been the target of religious violence in Egypt for decades.

But on Christmas, the worry faded away and the midnight mass at Bourtoseya church was filled with joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING AND CHURCH BELLS)

FADEL: Rozan Rafaat stood with her sister in the church courtyard next to a row of lit candles.

ROZAN RAFAAT: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: We celebrate, regardless of the circumstances, she says. I'm sure that God will protect us and even if something happens, it was His will and we could not change anything.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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