Cairo’s Copts defy terrorist threats during Christmas celebrations

As the countdown for Thursday’s Coptic Christmas Eve mass continues, Christian residents of Cairo’s Zeitoun neighborhood, ignoring fears of terrorist attack, express their determination to attend the ritual.

“My family and I are not afraid and we will go to the mass,” said Abdel Malek Nashed, a 61 year-old resident of middle class neighborhood.

“Why would people be afraid? We are holding onto our faith and our rituals. If we are predestined to die, so be it,” added Nashed, general manager of a Zeitoun-based Coptic charity organization.   

A few blocks away from his tiny office stands the famous Saint Mary Church, one of the holiest sites for Egypt’s Christian minority. An apparition of the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared above the church in 1968.

“We are keen on celebrating Christmas at Saint Mary. It blesses and provides spiritual strength,” said Nashed, as he handed over monthly donations packed in black plastic bags to poor Christian women lined up outside his office.

With a large Coptic population, Zeitoun stands as one of Cairo’s main neighborhoods. Tens of thousands of Christians live in the area and many of them own small businesses along the famous Tomanbay Street.

In recent years, the area witnessed two alarming sectarian incidents.

In May 2009, a homemade bomb exploded outside Saint Mary church but did not cause casualties. At the time, the police said that a bomb was planted under a parked car near the church.

A year earlier, Muslim gunmen burst into a jewelry shop owned by a Christian, killing four Copts.

Thursday’s mass is expected to begin around 7PM and last until midnight at Saint Mary.

“We are working on securing the church from inside and the police are working on the outside,” Hafez Naguib, a retired police general who heads the security division at the church, told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

“Inside, we have metal detectors. We are also using electronic sticks to check bodies. To secure the outside, the police has brought explosive experts,” added Naguib. He stood outside the church next to one of the steel barracks placed around the church complex.

Saint Mary church receives between 3000 and 5000 worshippers at the Christmas mass every year, according to Naguib, who believes the turnout should remain as high today.

“People should come to prove that we are not afraid, that God protects the church and its people and that terror does not scare us,” said Naguib while benches were being arranged and a roughly five-meter high Christmas tree was being decorated inside the church complex in preparation for tonight’s ritual.

Despite all assurances, some Copts anticipate additional attacks will spoil their celebrations later tonight.  

“I’m sure that something will happen today. Now, I wish to die as a martyr for the sake of my religion and my God,” said 18-year-old university student Amal Fawzi while doing last minute shopping with her friends at a women’s wear store on Tomanbay Street.

“Why is it hard to celebrate Christmas the way we should? Why do our holidays turn into funerals every year?” wondered the young girl.

Last year, Coptic Christmas was marred by the killing of six Copts in a drive-by shooting as worshippers emerged from within church after attending Christmas Eve mass in the southern province of Naga Hammadi. The incident outraged Copts and prompted them to accuse the government of failing to protect churches and leaving them as easy targets for radical Muslims.

Tonight’s mass comes less than a week after a terrorist blasts killed at least 23 outside a Coptic Church in Alexandria on the New Year’s Eve.

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