Fears of terrorism trigger tight security in Egypt as Christians prepare for holiday

Christmas comes this year as the spectre of terrorism seems more distant after security agencies dismantled many armed offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood and a cell of the Islamic State.
Sunday 22/12/2019
Special season. Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria leads the Coptic Orthodox Christmas Eve mass at the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital,  January 6, 2019.                           (AP)
Special season. Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria leads the Coptic Orthodox Christmas Eve mass at the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital, January 6, 2019. (AP)

CAIRO - Christians in Egypt are preparing for Christmas amid tight security.

The Christian minority, around 10% of the Egyptian population, marks the religious occasion while being more empowered following internal developments, including the licensing of hundreds of churches, a milestone on Egypt’s road to granting the Christian minority its rights.

“The failure of authorities to license churches was a problematic issue for the Christians in the past,” said Christian activist Ehab Ramzi. “Those living [far] away from churches had to pray at home but they were often prevented from doing this by their Muslim neighbours and the authorities.”

Egypt’s Christians are mostly Coptic Orthodox who celebrate Christmas on January 7. In the month leading to Christmas, they abstain from eating beef, poultry and dairy products. The celebration starts January 6 with well-attended services at churches across the country.

Christmas comes this year as the spectre of terrorism seems more distant after security agencies dismantled many armed offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood and a cell of the Islamic State (ISIS). Egypt paid dearly in terms of security personnel casualties to reduce the terrorist threat. Nonetheless, extremists, especially in Sinai, are capable of staging attacks.

Attacks against the Christian minority in the past five years seemed aimed at causing panic among Christians and at embarrassing Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who claims responsibility for the protection of the Christians.

The Christian minority has been at the heart of support to Sisi since he became president in mid-2014. Sisi’s crackdown on Islamist extremism has had the support of Egypt’s Christians.

Sisi was the first Egyptian president to attend Christian celebrations, including Christmas services. He has stressed that Christians are an inseparable part of the Egyptian social fabric.

Each of the 14 cities to be built in the Egyptian desert to increase habitable space is to include a major church along with a major mosque. Last January, Sisi opened the Middle East’s largest church in Egypt’s new capital being constructed between Cairo and Suez.

This personal sponsorship by the president is giving Christians a feeling of confidence but wariness of risk endures. There is fear among Christians, especially given that many attacks were aimed at churches and Christian gatherings ahead of or during Christmas celebrations.

In December 2017, terrorists attacked a church in southern Cairo, killing nine people and, in December 2016, an ISIS extremist set off a bomb in a church in central Cairo, killing 25 people, mostly women and children.

“The terrorist threat is still alive and very strongly,” said retired police General Fouad Allam. “Egypt is an important country in the region and the terrorists and their state sponsors know that hitting at its Christian minority will produce the desired destabilising effects.”

This is probably why the authorities are taking special measures to prepare for Christmas this year. Tens of thousands of police, including secret policemen, have been deployed near churches.

Some streets where churches are located have been blocked to traffic and pedestrians passing or entering the streets are searched and their baggage checked with electronic detectors to ensure that they do not contain weapons. All churches are provided with metal detectors.

This year, the Coptic Orthodox Church is enlisting the services of thousands of scouts who received security training in guarding churches and ensuring that those entering them are there for worship practices only. The scouts search and check identity cards of those entering churches.

“All these measures give us confidence that this year will be free from problems,” said Father Polis Halim, the spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Church. “The Christians also have confidence that there is a government in Egypt now that is very keen on protecting them.”

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