Egypt: Reaffirming Respect for All at Coptic Christmas

Posted by Jeffrey Feltman
January 8, 2012
Coptic Christmas in Egypt 2012

Over the course of my career as a United States diplomat, I've spent many a Christmas holiday in countries across the Middle East. From Beirut to Tunis, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Baha'is, and peoples of all religions, celebrate and acknowledge the importance of faith, a hope for the future, and goodwill toward all. Yet, something I saw a few days ago in Cairo reminded me of another important tenant of the season: tolerance.

I had the privilege of joining our Ambassador Anne Patterson in attending two Christmas services on January 6. First, we went to a moving celebration at the Evangelical Presbyterian Church near Tahrir Square. Then, in the evening, we attended a Coptic Christmas ceremony at Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral.

In both churches, there were celebrations of the joy of the season alongside somber moments of remembrance for those who lost their lives over the past year, including in the tragic and terrible terrorist attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria one year ago, as well as the unrest that followed. In the Presbyterian service, worshippers gave a standing ovation to a young man blinded in the unrest.

As I looked around the two churches, I was struck by Egypt's great religious and political diversity. At a time when the intersection of religion and politics is on the minds of many, it was encouraging to see many Muslims from across the political spectrum attend these services to show their respect for their fellow citizens. Just as Egyptians came together in a spirit of tolerance and unity last January in Tahrir Square, so, too, were the attendees of these Christmas celebrations affirming a respect for the principles of religious freedom that are essential to a democratic system. President Obama, in a statement a few days ago, rightly pointed out that, "freedom of religion, and the protection of people of all faiths, and the ability to worship as you choose are critical to a peaceful, inclusive, and thriving society."

Egypt's mainstream political parties have promised to respect the rights of religious minorities to worship freely. As Egypt's newly-elected lower house of parliament prepares to be seated for the first time this month, these parties will soon be in a position to ensure these promises come to fruition.

In this same spirit of tolerance, I spent my time this Christmas in Cairo speaking to Egyptian leaders and civil society activists about the importance of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as a pillar of any healthy democracy. NGOs, in Egypt and around the world, play an integral role in ensuring government accountability, providing much-needed services to needy communities, and offering protections for our most fundamental rights.

I was inspired by the commitment to unity, tolerance, and mutual respect evident at the Christmas services I attended. I hope this same spirit will be evident as Egyptians launch their new democratic parliament, write their new constitution, find ways to strengthen and protect equal rights for all citizens, and build a more prosperous nation.

Comments

Comments

Maria C.
|
Argentina
January 9, 2012

Maria G. in Argentina writes:

My heart aches when I see so many deaths, so many armed conflicts, we are in the XXI century and still can not believe that there are still wars for territorial and border problems, also Muslim-Jewish attacks.

The principle of democracy is freedom of religion and respect for each.

It is essential that you express the principle of Tolerance, and Unity.

Discrimination is not religious, ethnic, and knowing that all the riches that nature provides that belong to God is what has given us all, ask you to convey my prayer, my prayer to God to stop the wars by territorial issues and the black gold. May God continually break the system that keeps countries tied to war, misery, poverty and deaths from malnutrition and war. May God bless the United States of America. We in Argentina have the problem Gergi Islands, and the Argentine Sea Sandwuich that we were "usurped" and we have a range of population indigentee, and poverty, we are usurped the Malvinas Islands, but we are not a warlike country and we are ready to negotiate, because Britain is not the "owner" of Argentine territory, the Falkland Islands are and will Argentinas. We were usurped by the ichthyological wealth and minerals that represent.

Jacob M.
January 9, 2012

Jacob M. writes:

God bless Coptic Christmas

have64
January 9, 2012

W.W. writes:

Is there a coptic christmas too?

we are always on holydays here...

Ole
|
New York, USA
January 9, 2012

Ole in New York writes:

this is nice, but meanwhile in Iran the bandits that are 'ruling' that nation, have taken hostage yet another American, albeit ob Iranian descent and unwisely traveling to that country, and threaten to execute him for what clearly is trumped up charges and admission. this all, while they also threaten to cut off oil supplies in the straight of Hormuz, and prepare to set in work a nuke facility. i say ENOUGH HESITATION, BOMB'EM NOW! and don't look back asking for Putin's or Chinese communists' approval, we won't get it nor do we need it

Adel
January 9, 2012

Adel writes:

As a coptic christian myself, It does bring chills listening to your description of the tolerance you seem to have witnessed during your short stay. If anything it is far from being the true refelction of the society at large in Egypt. This snapshot on the Eve of Coptic Christmas does reflect though a very recent surge in Muslims wanting to know more about the christian faith, which for ages they had been denied access to. There is no question though, that the Egypt's Coptic p[olulation desereves our uttmost respect and praise for withstanding ages of persecution and discrimination and to then through these wonderful celebrations in the midst of their pain and agony.If anything it does speak of theri faith and belief in The resurrected Lord.

Martha
|
New Jersey, USA
January 12, 2012

Martha in New Jersey writes:

Thank you for posting this. All of us Copts pray for tolerance and peace and hope for all minorities, not only Copts, to have the right and security to worship freely in Egypt. I am glad you were able to attend these services and experience the beauty of the Coptic faith.

As you have seen, it is a faith worth fighting for to preserve in its homeland, and we know that God has His plan and will not let all those who died for what is true, unity, tolerance, and mutual respect, die in vain.

Fr. M.
|
New Jersey, USA
January 12, 2012

Fr. Bishoy in New Jersey writes:

Dear Jeffery,

As a Coptic Priest who read your words and inspired by the spirit behind it. I hope that your words come to truth. We all saw How the Scaf greeted the Christians and they themselves called our youth two months ago in Maspero. Your words should really be heard and implemented deeply. The voices of truth become unheard. We are facing rulers who kill and then come on media saying we did not kill. Twisting truth is the worst thing. We all standing beside those who say the word of truth like you. Thanks so much for your article, may God bless your mission and work.

Coptic Christian Priest
Fr. Bishoy

Phoebe
|
New Jersey, USA
January 12, 2012

Phoebe in New Jersey writes:

I agree with your words Mr. Feltman, and note that we are often moved by shows of unity and solidarity during such celebrations. However, Egyptians need more than these shows of unity; justice must actually be served that fully penalizes acts of discrimination and persecution against minorities. Until now, no one has been convicted for the bombing of Al-Qidiseen Church in Alexandria on New Year's Eve 2010. At least 6 churches have been burned since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, and no one has been held accountable for this.

The Egyptian government must be held accountable to the words you wrote at the end of this note. It is not enough to wish for this spirit of "unity and accountability." The US government, as one of Egypt's biggest funders, should pressure Egypt's government to do much more than show up for Christmas services. It should take strong measures to protect minorities and justly punish perpetrators of violence.

Maria
|
United States
January 13, 2012

Maria in the U.S.A. writes:

Thank you for your blog, and while I appreciate these shows of tolerance, this isn't anything new - Muslims have been attending Coptic Christmas, and the talk of "unity and tolerance" has been around since the 1920s when both faiths worked together to kick the British out of Egypt. However, that talk only runs so deep in the wake of what's happened in the 90 years since. Our issue is that, if we want true tolerance and unity, we need to be able to talk about what that really means for each side.

When people talk of "the right of religious minorities to worship freely," are we speaking of the same thing? For me, that includes freedom of conversion for both religions, family law that doesn't give precedence of one religion over another in cases of conversion, freedom of speech to express belief in the public square, even if that might be perceived as "insulting" to the other religion. There are so many laws that are on the books in Egypt besides the ones related to church buildings that relate to tolerance and equality that no one wants to discuss, and until that happens, such shows of tolerance will only be skin deep.

As a country that has experienced its own share of discrimination and the legacies of it, I hope the United States can facilitate a genuine dialogue of what tolerance means, and that such sentiments can turn into meaningful change both legislatively and in enforcement.

Atef P.
|
New Jersey, USA
January 22, 2012

Atef P. in New Jersey writes:

Why our US Embassy in Egypt denies the visitors visas to the Christians, while they allow it Muslims (mostly fanatics)?

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