— Egyptian-American Copts are celebrating their Christmas with mixed feelings this year. Worshipers at the Saint Mark Orthodox Church
in Fairfax, Virginia say their holiday joy has been muted by concerns about the future of fellow Copts in Egypt, where Islamists are tightening their hold on the government.
“[The] safety of Copts is still a concern because every now and then we hear about a church being [set] on fire,” said Father Bishoy Andrawes, the senior priest at St. Mark. “The other concern is the future of Egypt in general and the religious freedom in particular.”
Copts make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, the largest Christian minority in any Middle Eastern nation.
Two years ago, they celebrated Christmas under heightened security after the bombing of their church in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.
This year, Copts in Egypt are even more concerned about the future of their religion and its followers because of critical statements made by some Islamist preachers.
According to Father Andrawes, the events in Egypt are already having a direct impact on his church and congregation in northern Virginia.
“We see a lot of Copts coming from Egypt lately, leaving behind their businesses, factories with hundreds of jobs, tourism projects fearing a bleak future,” he said.
The theocracy threat
Amal Mankaryos, a St. Mark member, said at a Christmas service on Sunday that some Salafi Islamists had called on Muslims not to greet Christians on their Christmas.
“Muslims used to share with us our holidays and back us in our calamities,” Mankaryos said, adding, “Now what happened?”
Before and after the church service in Fairfax, parishioners discussed Egypt’s new constitution, which they worried could open the way for establishing an official Islamist state.
According to the new constitution, all laws passed by the parliament have to be compatible with Islam as understood by the four main schools of Sunni Islam.
Before the constitution was completed, the General Council for the Coptic Orthodox Church and representatives of other churches decided to withdraw from the drafting committee.
Nader Tadros, a supporter of one of the opposition parties in Egypt, said these developments are bad news for the country's Copts.
“That heavy interpretation of religious teachings would mean that [I] as a Christian would not be able to participate fully in setting rules and regulations, and I would be excluded from the process right from the beginning,” said Tadros.
Father Andrawes expressed similar concern.
“The new constitution was designed for the majority, while a good and fair constitution should protect both majority and minorities,” he said. “A constitution drafted by a majority of Islamists, coupled with a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, is missing the balance of power, checks and balances that keep democracy in place. But the concentration of power is taking Egypt back to the past mistakes with just a different scenario.”
Michael Abdelmaseeh, another member of the Orthodox Coptic church in Fairfax, said the concentration of power among Islamists is bad not only for Copts, but also for Muslims in Egypt.
“Copts and their fellow Muslim citizens wanted a constitution for all Egyptians that would not change the identity of the pluralistic society,” he said. “Christians are looking for a future free of discrimination not as second-class citizens.”
Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically-elected president since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, says the new constitution guarantees equal rights for all
. After taking office last year, Morsi said he would not turn the country into an Islamic Republic.
Show of support
Despite the pressures Copts are facing in Egypt, there are signs of solidarity.
Tadros said the latest effort to marginalize the Copts had backfired.
“It was refreshing that Egyptians felt that this kind of call was nonsense,” Tadros said at the St. Mark service. “So we received more congratulations on our Christmas as a show of solidarity and to reiterate our national unity.”
Father Andrawes added that he and other Egyptian-American Copts have received many messages of support over the holidays, “showing the tolerant nature of real Muslims.”
Sirag Elsheikh, an Egyptian-American Muslim representing the Al Dostour liberal party, called for more unity during the holiday period and beyond.
“We are all Egyptians, and Muslims and Christians belong to the same grandfather,” he said. “True Muslims should treat Copts as an integral part of the Egyptian society.”