Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas Tuesday. Among them were Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Christians the largest Christian denomination in the country. But what makes this year's Christmas in Egypt different is that for the first time it was celebrated as a national holiday for all Egyptians.

Orthodox faithful squeezed into St. Mark's Coptic Cathedral in downtown Cairo to celebrate midnight mass. St. Mark, Egypt's patron saint, is believed to have brought the Christian message to the country in the first century A.D., and Egypt's Christian heritage is considered among the oldest in the world.

As the head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox church, Pope Shenuda III, chanted the biblical account of Jesus Christ's birth in Bethlehem during the mass.

Although the cathedral was packed with Christians, several Muslim officials attended to pay their respects. Among them was Gamal Mubarak, President Hosni Mubarak's son, the secretary of the ruling party, who some say could be his successor.

For the first time, President Mubarak announced that Coptic Christmas would be a national holiday for all Egyptians, not just for its estimated 7-10 million Copts. Until the presidential decree, Copts were entitled to take the day off, but otherwise it was business as usual.

Most Christians and Muslims are happy about the new national celebration of Christmas.

Thirty-year-old Christian Basant Boutros said Christians and Muslims are brothers in Egypt. She said Christians are grateful to President Mubarak for making Christmas a public holiday for Muslims too because she said that shows the Egyptians really are one people.

Muslim Student Ashraf Galal said he will be visiting his Christian friends to celebrate Christmas this year and said there is no difference between him and them.

More hard line Muslims say they believe the United States has twisted President Mubarak's arm to grant national recognition of Christmas.

But senior Coptic Orthodox Church official Bishop Marcos said most Egyptian Muslims have rejected extremist views. He said President Mubarak's decision shows that all of Egypt's citizens are treated equally because their religious festivals are worthy of national recognition.

"I think he put in his consideration to do something for the Egyptians, to be one people in Egypt, Muslims to go the mosque for prayer and Christians coming to the church for prayer," he said. "But the days, religious holidays by time should be national because we Christians have the holiday of the Muslim feasts and we celebrate with them in the same feasts."

In years past, Copts and other Egyptian Christians have complained about inequalities in professional opportunities and restrictions on building churches.

Activist Milaad Hanna, has worked for better Coptic-Muslim relations in Egypt for decades and said he proposed that Christmas be declared a national holiday 27 years ago. But he said President Mubarak felt the time was now right for such a decision.

"He will be getting more internal stability which is what he needs," Mr. Hanna said. "Number two, he is getting the Copts to be happy and the Muslims also to be happy. But obviously this is an aperitif therefore definitely people would start to say, what comes next?"

Mr. Hanna said what he and other Copts would like to see come next is for the president to designate Easter as a national holiday and appoint a Christian to serve as one of Egypt's regional governors.