Egypt’s Coptic Christians mark Christmas in fear


Richard Spencer, Alexandria

gypt’s Coptic Christians celebrated Christmas on Friday, but the fervour was more apocalyptic than festive. The devout talked of the blood of the martyrs staining the dust of Egypt’s history, and in Alexandria the stains were still there.

A week ago, in the parish Church of the Two Saints, a suicide bomb killed 21 worshippers coming out of midnight mass. The faithful, as a sign of defiance, demanded that the bloodstains left on the walls and pavement be left till the holy season was over.

“Christians cannot separate pain from joy,” the church’s priest, Father Paul Gergis, told his congregation at a Christmas Eve service. “We are children of the saints and martyrs of the Coptic Church, which has suffered in blood more than any other.”

The bombing was the worst modern outrage committed againstEgypt’seight million Copts, ten per cent of the population. The police seemingly have few leads, but al-Qaeda inIraq, already engaged in a one-sided onslaught against that country’s Christian minority, had threatened Egypt’s community too.

The Church in the Middle East was the long-term loser of Lebanon’s civil war. In Israel and occupied territories it is squeezed between Hamas and militant Zionists, and it is the target of assassinations in Iraq. Now it is defending a new front.

There is however a difference between Iraq and Egypt. Iraq’s Christians, numbering just a few hundred thousand after years of decline and war, are an educated elite who can make new lives abroad. Egypt’s Copts run the social spectrum, even forming something of an underclass in parts of big cities like Cairo and Alexandria. They cannot escape violence by running away, and violent resentment can take over where flight is not an option.