Christmas Confusion as Copts Experience “Other” Egypt

Yesterday was a rather confusing day for many Western observers of the Arab world, particularly Egypt. Many in Europe and North America had taken an extended holiday, considering the proximity to Christmas Day and New Year’s Day – and most of them would have returned this past weekend, to start work again in the new year on Monday the 7th of January. When contacting their interlocutors in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt, they would have been met with a surprise. “Sorry, we’re not working today. It’s Christmas.”

It is true that some people do stretch their holidays, so that they last far beyond the actual day of the special occasion – but in this case, that is not what happened, and what happens, every year. The 7th of January is the date of Christmas according to the Coptic calendar, and as such, it is a national holiday. Such as been the case in Egypt since I can remember – and none of that seems set to change under the new Islamist government of President Mursi.

The occasion is one usually where Muslim politicians, religious leaders and ordinary citizens express their heartfelt appreciation of the Christian element of the Egyptian people and the Arab nation, and offer words of greeting to them. This year was something of a first for Christian Egyptians, though.

Religiously forbidden

It was the first year where Christian Egyptians celebrated Christmas under an Islamist president – a president who did not attend the Christmas celebrations, although he did send a representative. It was the first year that a sectarian discourse that identified Christians and the Coptic Church as potential subversive elements was unabashedly public. – and from senior levels. When the protests against the president were at their height, a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure went on TV to declare that 60% of the protestors were Christian – under the assumption, one presumes, that this would make the protests less legitimate.

At the same time, Salafi sheikhs, as well as senior Muslim Brotherhood figures like Khairat al-Shater, either issued or supported the notion that wishing Christian compatriots a ‘Merry Christmas’ was religiously forbidden, and sinful for Muslims to do – hardly a note of positive co-existence in a time when sectarianism is rearing its head.

But this is not the only story in Egyptian Christianity after the beginning of the revolution in January 2011. There is another.

Other story

That other story is the story of Muslim Egyptians going to stand outside of churches on the 25th of December (when some Christian denominations in Egypt celebrate Christmas), on the 6th and the 7th., to reassure Christian Egyptians that indeed, they and them were one people. That other story is the story of Muslim and Christian Egyptians, to this day, still chanting ‘One Hand’ in demonstrations, and even within churches, when Muslims who came to the churches in solidarity with Christian Egyptians.

That other story is the story of the remembrance ceremony at Maspero in Cairo earlier this year, where Muslims and Christians joined together to recall and commemorate the sacrifices of mostly Christian protestors, who lost their lives in a clash with the military, after the revolution began.

That other story is of Dr. Mazhar Shaheen, the imam of the Omar Makram mosque on the edge of Tahrir Square, who was greeted by applause, cheers and given a standing ovation by Christian worshippers when he was invited to give a speech at the Qasr al-Dobara Church nearby.

That other story is the story of supporters of the revolution who remember those 18 days in Tahrir Square, from the 25th of January 2011 to the 11th of February 2011; those days where Christians praying were surrounded and protected by Muslims, and vice versa.

That other story is Egypt.

But that other story is not the only Egypt that is possible, sadly, after the revolution began in 2011. Too many individuals and groups will work hard to break that essential ingredient of the Egyptian people; that ingredient of tolerance and co-operation. Egyptians prior to the revolution, particularly those from the majority Muslim community, tended to take good relations between Christians and Muslims for granted – they no longer do. They can no longer afford to.

Rather, such good relations between these religious communities are to be preserved, fought for, and actively renewed, again and again. Therein, perhaps, lies one of the most core values of that revolution, forged in that square of liberation, two years ago. As Egyptians draw nearer to the second anniversary of its beginning, they would be well advised to remember that.