Christmas spirit subdued but alive in Arab world
Beirut - While radical Islamic militants destroyed churches, the latest in Yemen in December, Christian minorities in the Middle East prepared for Christmas celebrations, which are shared by Muslims communities in some countries, including Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.
Christmas is one of the most celebrated holidays of the year in Lebanon. It is such a special time that religious and political divisions are set aside and nearly everyone embraces the Christmas spirit.
Economic duress, volatile security and political instability that gripped the country for years do not hinder Christmas manifestations. Ornate Christmas trees, flickering lights and crèche scenes can be seen in windows, on the street, public places and roundabouts in Beirut and other cities.
Although it is home to practitioners of 18 different sects, with 30% Christians, and a turbulent history stemming from religious differences, the Christmas spirit in Lebanon is alive across the country, no matter the family’s religious background.
“I have put up the Christmas tree, which I hope will be covered with lots of gifts. It will be such a big joy for my 18-month-old daughter, who will have her first real Christmas,” said Rana Habib, a Sunni Muslim housewife.
Christian and Muslim children in Lebanon alike impatiently await a visit from Santa Claus. It is a time of joy for all. “Our Lady Mariam (Mary) and Prophet Isa (Jesus) are venerated in the Holy Quran. It is a good reason for us Muslims to celebrate Christmas,” Habib said.
Kamal Zaidan’s two daughters insist on renovating the Christmas tree’s decorations every year. “They put up the tree early in December and spend the day decorating it with their cousins, who do not have one because my brother does not allow it,” said Zeidan, a practicing Muslim.
“On Christmas Eve we hold a dinner and the whole family gathers around the famous Christmas turkey, which my wife insists on preparing every year. Even my brother participates sometimes. It is an occasion for the whole family to get together like we do for (Muslim feasts) Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha,” Zeidan added.
In Jordan, where Christians make up some 3.5% of the country’s population of 7.5 million, churches schedule special services for Christmas hymns and carols sung by their choirs and some hotels organise Christmas banquets, with Santa Claus distributing gifts to children.
Security at churches is reinforced around Christmas with heavily armed police to abort any breaches by Muslim militants, whose terror plots have included attempted attacks on churches.
Some Amman residences and a few shops put up Christmas trees but there is no street or window decorations as in Arab countries with larger Christian communities.
“There’s no Christmas spirit this year either,” complained Amman computer software engineer Issa Farah. “How can we be in the mood to enjoy the joyous season, while Arab people in Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Yemen are being killed in wars and militant violence.”
In Egypt, some shops put on a large display of Christmas-related gifts and goods, including Christmas trees, Santa Claus costumes, stockings and heart pots and mugs.
Kerlis Adel, a downtown Cairo gift shop owner, spent weeks preparing for Christmas. “I think we will have a great season this year,” said Adel, who placed a figurine of Santa carrying a sack of gifts at the entrance to his shop. “People just want to feel happy after years of gloom.”
For Egypt’s Orthodox Christian Copts, Christmas is celebrated January 7th.
Egyptians actually celebrate Christmas twice within about a week. The country’s majority Muslim population and Christian minority, around 10% of the population, celebrate the end of the year on December 31st and call it Christmas. Christmas-related rituals are observed from late November through Coptic Christmas Eve, a period during which Christians abstain from eating meat, poultry and dairy products.
Many people attend church services on Christmas Eve. The Coptic language is used in the rites, which are often broadcast live on national television.
With the spectre of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood dissipated, Egyptian Christians anticipated a joyful season.
“Egypt has returned to its people after the Islamists had gone,” Coptic Bishop Abdel Messiah Baseet said. “We feel very safe this year.”
Millions of Egyptians — Muslim and Christian — expressed joy when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a Sunni Muslim, joined Christmas rites at an eastern Cairo cathedral where Coptic Pope Tawadros II celebrated mass. Sisi was the first Egyptian president to attend the service.
Baseet said he expects the president to make a similar gesture in 2015.