Coptic Christians in the United States began their Christmas holiday Thursday night with an extra measure of police protection, following new anti-Christian threats by Mideast Islamist groups. At the St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Fairfax, Virginia, American-Egyptian Copts took part in the traditional Christmas Eve mass with reserved joy, mindful of the New Year?s Day church bombing in Egypt and the growing specter of anti-Christian violence.
Hundreds of the faithful gathered - as they do every Christmas Eve - to begin the January 7 Coptic observance of Christ?s birth. But there was nothing normal about the extra security around and inside the St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church Thursday night.
Adel Miseeha, the church spokesman, said, "In coordination with local police we?re watching all events and we?re having additional security people as well as adding our own security people to monitor anybody coming in or leaving."
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The Coptic community is on high alert worldwide after a bomb killed 23 people outside a Coptic church in Egypt on New Year?s Day. The attack followed messages on websites maintained by Islamic extremists calling for attacks on Coptic churches everywhere. The terrorist act in Egypt and subsequent anti-Christian threats have dampened the joy in this year?s Christmas celebration.
Short Video of the Christmas Mass at St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Fairfax, Virginia:
Haleem Meawad is a member of the board of Coptic Solidarity, a private, American-based organization that works to support the Coptic minority in Egypt. "As you might guess it, we are celebrating this year with heavy hearts of sadness. Not because of our own loss, the loss of our Coptic community, but also sadness of what?s happening in our mother country. All the indications are not very promising right now," he said.
U.S. law enforcement agencies took the threats against American Coptic churches very seriously and directed local police departments to provide extra protection to churches in their jurisdictions. Meawad says Egyptian American Copts attending services Thursday night in Virginia appreciated those precautions.
"The website of al Qaeda, they posted so many threats and they said plainly that all Copts are legitimate - of course, that?s their terminology - legitimate targets wherever they are, whether they?re in Egypt or outside of Egypt. So yes, this church is no exception. It is one of the targets. If they have a way to do any damage or to hurt us anywhere, they will do it. We know that for sure," he said.
Against this backdrop of fear and anxiety, the Coptic Church sermon conducted by Father Anthony Meseeh focused on reassuring the congregation, and urging them to remain calm and joyful. "Your joy no one will take from you, no one can take your joy because no one can touch you inside. Is it possible to have sorrow and joy? Yes. Is it possible to have hatred all around you and you still be full of love? Yes, that is what is our mission in life," he said.
Church-goer Mona Mikhail said she felt sad to pray under the protection of security forces, because she would rather pray under the protection of God. "We celebrate Christmas with great sadness of course today. We are not happy because what happened. We wished that the start of the New Year was much peaceful and brings joy to all of us. But I am sure that this church and all of us are in God?s hands protecting us so I really didn?t have any fear," she said.
Members of the Egyptian-American Coptic community have called on the Egyptian government to be more diligent in protecting the civil rights of the nation?s Coptic minority.
Some Muslim and Coptic Egyptian-Americans are joining a candlelight vigil Friday in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. They plan to show solidarity with Egyptians holding similar vigils all over Egypt Friday to honor the victims of the New Year?s Day church attack.