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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 7 March 2021

Egypt's Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas remotely

This year’s restrictions also included a ban on the customary Christmas Day visits to cemeteries by Christians who lost loved ones

Christamas mass in Cairo. Mahmoud Nasr / The National
Christamas mass in Cairo. Mahmoud Nasr / The National

Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Christians are celebrating Christmas this year under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Coptic Christmas in 2021 falls on Thursday, January 7.

Strict restrictions were placed on attendance of the Wednesday night Mass.

Pope Tawadros II, spiritual leader of the country’s mostly orthodox 10 million Christians, was expected to lead Mass in a remote desert monastery west of Cairo, instead of the seat of the church in the Egyptian capital or the cathedral built in the new capital, a church spokesman said.

Spokesman Father Bolos Halim said the pontiff would be joined in the Mass by a limited number of clerics, bishops, monks and deacons.

The service was to be broadcast live on state television and private, church-affiliated networks. “The total number will not exceed 20,” said Fr Bolos.

The 20-person ceiling would also be applicable to churches in Cairo and the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria – the former seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church – the two cities hit hardest by the coronavirus, according to the Health Ministry.

Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox are among the world’s oldest Christian communities, with their church’s origins traditionally traced to St Mark the Evangelist in the 1st century AD. The persecution of Egypt’s early Christians in Roman times is a central part of the church’s narrative and a source of enduring pride. The church is also credited with introducing monasticism to Christianity.

Christamas mass in Cairo. Mahmoud Nasr / The National
Christamas mass in Cairo. Mahmoud Nasr / The National

Under President Abdel Fatah El Sisi, a career soldier first elected in 2014, Christians have been enjoying a level of protection not seen in decades. In return, the country’s Christians have been among the president’s most ardent supporters.

Pope Tawadros has been particularly close to the president, whose goodwill gestures toward Christians, like attending Christmas Mass and often emphasising the equality of all Egyptians, have been warmly welcomed by the church.

However there have been occasional attacks by extremist Islamists against Christians and their properties in rural areas.

“The religious identity of any citizen of this country must not play a role or give rise to any discrimination regarding his rights and obligations,” president El Sisi told the Coptic pontiff during a video call to wish him well on the occasion of Christmas, according to a presidential statement on Wednesday.

Pope Tawadros, who is also in charge of the Cairo and Alexandria diocese, is leaving bishops across the nation to decide the size of congregations for Christmas Mass in their churches, Fr Bolos said.

Ishaq Ibrahim, one of Egypt’s top experts on the Orthodox church, said regional dioceses’ regulations for the Christmas Mass varied, depending largely on the size of individual churches. Some churches said they would allow 25 per cent of their usual congregations to attend, while others announced limits of 25 people, including clerics and deacons.

Mr Ibrahim said many churches introduced online forms for churchgoers to request a spot at services during the first wave of the pandemic last year. That system would be used in some dioceses for the Christmas Mass.

Christamas mass in Cairo. Mahmoud Nasr / The National
Christamas mass in Cairo. Mahmoud Nasr / The National

This year’s regulations also included a ban on the customary Christmas Day visits to cemeteries by Christians who lost loved ones. Moreover, Pope Tawadros will not receive well-wishers this year as he normally would during the holiday period.

The Christmas Mass regulations underline the seriousness of the second wave of the pandemic gripping Egypt.

Last week, the government ordered universities and schools closed, cancelled New Year’s celebrations and vowed to strictly enforce social distancing and the wearing of masks in crowded public spaces. However, the government has been reluctant to impose a lockdown for fear that the economy could suffer a meltdown.

Egypt has been taking delivery of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, which is taken twice 21 days apart, but authorities have yet to roll it out. They have said front-line health workers, the elderly and people suffering chronic diseases would take priority when vaccinations begin. The vaccine was expected to be rolled out later this month.

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Orthodox Christmas around the world - in pictures

Updated: January 7, 2021 03:07 PM

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