Egypt’s Christians were worried about their safety on Monday as they marked the first Christmas under Islamist rule, with Coptic Pope Tawadros II urging worshipers “not to be afraid” and some complaining that their lives had gone from bad to worse in the nearly two years since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.
At St. Mary’s Church in the dense and religiously mixed neighborhood of Imbaba, where sectarian clashes have flared before, midnight Mass on Christmas Eve started early because of safety concerns. The church, which was torched by an Islamist mob in 2011, was protected Sunday by a larger police presence than in past years, a signal to some that the Islamist government wanted to avoid trouble after political clashes flared last month on Egypt’s streets.
Many Christians, who make up roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people, have joined with liberals in complaining that the country’s new constitution, ratified last month, sets the stage for a broader implementation of Islamic law. Although Copts had complained of marginalization and discrimination under Mubarak, many accuse President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood allies of hijacking the country and seeking to exclude Christians entirely.
But some Christians said Egypt’s tumultuous transition also has rendered a long-silent community more politicized. With parliamentary elections expected in a few months, they say they are going to keep pushing for their rights to counter the Islamists’ rise.
The confrontation last month between Islamists and Egypt’s fractured liberal opposition over the character of the new constitution drew scores of Christian protesters.
It wasn’t the first time that the Copts had demonstrated against Egypt’s emerging status quo. Hundreds of protesters camped in downtown Cairo after a wave of sectarian clashes in 2011, but now many say they have felt emboldened by the vastness of the emerging opposition.
“The Muslim Brotherhood may have forced the constitution on the people, but they will not be able to force Egypt to stay silent,” said Mena Girgis, a 22-year-old university student and activist. “I don’t think they can come close to the Christians at the moment. They’re worried about their reputation to the world — that it will be even shakier than it was before.”
Morsi and Mohammed Badie, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, issued separate statements Sunday to wish Egyptian Christians a merry holiday. Many Eastern Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7.
In his Mass, Tawadros appealed for unity but also told congregants, “Even if humans feel lots of fear, remember, God will take care of you. This is a collective message because fear is contagious. . . . This is a message of reassurance.”
Egypt’s military claimed on its Facebook page Monday that its troops had foiled an attempted church bombing near the country’s border with the Gaza Strip on Sunday night. But it was not clear from local media reports whether a car found laden with guns and ammunition in the restive border town of Rafah had meant to target an unused church or whether it may have been directed at a military base, both located nearby.
At St. Mary’s, where memories of mob violence are still fresh, Christmas Eve Mass ended early “to ensure that people get home safely,” said Youssef al-Qumos, a pathologist and churchgoer.
The most violent sectarian clashes of the past two years occurred during the period of military rule after Mubarak’s ouster — and, in one instance, at the hands of the armed forces. But for many, Islamist rule spells far deeper conflicts on the horizon.
Rising Islamism has spurred tense exchanges and sporadic violence in mixed communities across Egypt in recent months. “Even those who have nothing to do with anything are growing beards now,” said Magdy, a Christian bureaucrat in the village of Sanhour in rural Fayoum province.
The residents of Sanhour have been luckier than those of some other towns south of Cairo, Magdy added, because they have yet to see an attack on Christians. But he declined to give his last name for fear of reprisal. “Any word spoken by a Christian is judged,” he said. “It’s calm here. But it’s the future that we worry about.”
Last week, fundamentalist Islamists known as Salafists re-published old fatwas warning Muslims against fraternizing with Christians on their holiday. A shadowy Salafist group in the city of Suez vowed to shut down any New Year celebrations. And rumors of a grass-roots Salafist morality force that is planning to mob churches and force conversions have put many Christians on edge.
“They repeated that on a lot of satellite channels, and we don’t know if it’s true or false,” Nahed Adly, a dentist in Cairo who attended Mass at St. Mary’s, said of the rumors.
“My reading is that they’re waiting till the election, till they get everything. And when they’re done taking over all the seats of power, then they can focus on us,” she said.