The Coptic Orthodox Church and the Muslim Brotherhood celebrated Christmas together in churches throughout Egypt on Saturday, in a display of national unity.
Christmas, celebrated in Egypt on January 7, has in recent years been a holiday of sorrow and worry, with attacks on churches and an intensifying politics of religious identity.
Many Copts are fearful over a parliament dominated by Islamists, who are poised to claim around 75% of the seats following a third round of elections.
Two Christmasses ago a church in the town of Nag Hamadi witnessed a drive-by shooting that killed six Christians exiting mass.
A church in Alexandria was bombed last New Year’s Eve, killing twenty-three.
Yet this year, Christmas passed off without violence, in a show of national unity by both church and Brotherhood.
Mohamed el-Beltagi, secretary of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, told Lapido he would offer protection and greeting.
‘We will cooperate with security to make sure there are no attacks on the Church. Our presence is precautionary, but we will comfort the Copts after what happened last year.’
Beltagi stressed there was no ulterior motive. ‘Protecting churches is a social and religious obligation. It has no relation to Copts as dhimmis,’ he said, referring to the infamous second-class status accorded to non-Muslims under sharia law.
Hassan Mohamed, the assistant media coordinator for the Muslim Brotherhood in southern Cairo, also dismissed any relation to dhimmi-type protection. ‘We are here to protect our Christian brothers, as they did for us in Tahrir.
‘Christians are in the army, so how can we treat them as dhimmis? The jurisprudence of reality says this is impossible. Our scholars will figure this out later, and it is not appropriate to talk about it now.’
Some prominent Copts expressed reservations however.
Fr Philopater of the Maspero Youth Union, at the forefront of the October protest in which 27 people were shot or crushed by military tanks, said that Copts had always suffered, and would continue to do so.
‘The problem with the Muslim Brotherhood is that they hide things and play games. Some Islamists talk about protection, while others speak of jizzya, call us infidels, and refuse to greet us for our holidays.’
Jizzya is a special tax non-Muslims pay under Islamic law in exchange for exemption from the army and a guarantee of protected status. Payment renders one dhimmi.
Fr Dawud, a monk in Fayyoum, told Lapido the Muslim Brotherhood was active in guarding churches in his city. ‘Perhaps they are trying to win the sympathy of Christians so we can accept them and they can reach their goal of government.’
Bishop Bisenti presides over the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Helwan in southern Cairo, and is a close advisor to Pope Shenouda. The Muslim Brotherhood guarded his church in conjunction with the military.
‘The Muslim Brotherhood wants to show love and we appreciate this.
‘But we say we are in the protection of God.
‘Of course we do not accept status as dhimmis; we are one people with Muslims and citizens of one nation. But we thank and welcome them in their effort to offer us Christmas greetings.’
Another Brotherhood spokesman who was present at Bishop Bisenti’s church to express solidarity told Lapido: ‘Christians do not need protection. They need to see what Muslims have in their hearts toward them.
‘They have to know we are really like them. I left my family at home to come here and share Christmas with them, and I am happy to do so.’
* The Western media largely ignored the story of Muslim Brotherhood protection, as well as its complicated undertones. Online editions of The Times of London, The New York Times, and CNN did not mention it.
Instead The Guardian quoted Pope Shenouda’s comments during Christmas mass: ‘For the first time in the history of the cathedral, it is packed with all types of Islamist leaders in Egypt. They all agree ... on the stability of this country, and in loving it and working for it, and to work with the Copts as one hand for the sake of Egypt.’