Christmas passes peacefully for Copts in Egypt
Egypt's Coptic Christians had reason to be of good cheer this Christmas after early reports showed that their festive celebrations passed off without incident – unlike in previous years.
Government security was tight at St Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, in Alexandria and other high-profile churches during the liturgies marking Christmas, which in the Coptic-rite fell on Tuesday.
Turn-out was higher than normal at the liturgies which went ahead as normal in contrast to previous years, most notably January 2011 when 24 people were killed by a car bomb while leaving a church service in Alexandria.
Speaking from Cairo in an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Father Rafik Greiche, media representative for the Coptic Catholic Bishops' Conference, said: "There were no attacks [on churches] – no incidents at all. We do feel very encouraged.
"There was an atmosphere of stability and that is why this year was different to last year. Even though there was a little bit of fear among the people, they were not outright afraid."
He said the activities were enhanced by some Christmas trees and carol singing in shopping centres and other venues – in marked contrast to the lack of Christmas symbols under the regime of President Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist leader who fell from office last summer.
Fr Greiche said: "Christmas is a period that we normally like and this year it had a new flavour because we had no Morsi."
Mr Morsi's supporters in the hard-line Muslim Brotherhood blamed Christians for his fall from power and carried out a wave of violence in mid-August when 50 or more churches were attacked, creating widespread panic and fear.
In his interview with Aid to the Church in Need, which helped provide protective walls around Coptic churches in Cairo targeted by violence, Fr Greiche said that Copts were delighted by Government ministers' recognition of the Christmas celebrations.
He highlighted the Copts' delight when Egypt's interim President Adly Mansour met Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II at his cathedral in Alexandria on Monday (6th January), Coptic Christmas Eve.
Fr Greiche said: "This was something entirely new and we very much hope that the move by the President sets a precedent."
The Catholic spokesman said that such a move was significant as hard-line Islamists such as Salafists consider it forbidden (haram) for Muslims to greet Christians and other non-Muslims to mark their feast days.
Fr Greiche said the non-violent Christmas boded well ahead of Tuesday's (14th) referendum on a revised constitution which replaces the one ratified barely a year ago by the Morsi regime.
Secular parties and others have signalled their support for the new constitution which is firmly opposed by the Muslim Brotherhood and other pro-Morsi groups which have urged their supporters to vote 'no'.
Fr Greiche said: "The new constitution is certainly a more civil one than its predecessor – there are many articles about freedom of speech and freedom of conscience."
He pointed out that Article 2 of the proposed new constitution enshrines the right to religious freedom for three faiths – Judaism and Christianity as well as Islam.