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Egypt Copts mark uneasy Christmas

| Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013, 6:40 p.m.
REUTERS
Children hold lit candles as they participate in an Orthodox Christmas mass at a Coptic church in Cairo January 6, 2013. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih (EGYPT - Tags: RELIGION TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

CAIRO — Egypt's minority Christians celebrated their first Christmas on Sunday in a country with an Islamist president and constitution, praying for a “better Egypt.”

Christians converged on Cairo's main cathedral for Midnight Mass on the eve of Orthodox Christmas, led by their new pope.

Even though Islamist President Mohamed Morsy called Pope Tawadros II with Christmas greetings and sent one of his aides to the Mass, some Copts are reportedly considering leaving the country.

Amir Ramzy, a Coptic Christian and a judge in Cairo's court of appeals, said Christmas is a chance to retreat and pray for a “better Egypt.”

Ramzy said, “Christians are approaching Christmas with disappointment, grief and complaints, fearing not only their problems, but Egypt's situation in general. During the reign of (ousted President Hosni) Mubarak and the (military rulers), mainly Christians were facing problems, but now with the Muslim Brotherhood leaders, each and every moderate Egyptian is facing problems.”

In one of his first public messages after his enthronement, Tawadros said the ouster of Mubarak opened the way for a larger Coptic public role, encouraging them to participate in the nation's evolving democracy.

Egypt's Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 85 million people, have long complained of discrimination by the state and the country's Muslim majority. Clashes with Muslims have occasionally broken out, sparked by church construction, land disputes or Muslim-Christian love affairs.

With the ouster of Mubarak in 2011, sectarian violence rose, and attacks on churches sent thousands of Coptic protesters into the streets. A protest in October 2011 was violently quelled by the country's military rulers, leaving 26 people dead and sparking further outrage.

Ereny Rizk, 34, whose brother George died in the demonstration, said it was the second Christmas without him, but that the election of Tawadros raised her spirits.

“I felt like he's my father. Having him lessened the severity of my grief,” she said. “I definitely thought about leaving the country, but two things stopped me. First, the churches and the monasteries in Egypt, our heritage that I'll be missing. Also, I decided not to let my brother's blood go in vain.”

The violence has abated, and 2012 was characterized more by the struggle for political and religious rights, said Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

“It is not actual frequent sectarian violence; it is fear of further marginalization and second-class citizenship,” he said.

Ibrahim said some wealthy Copts, who have connections abroad, have temporarily sought to leave Egypt.

“But the majority (of Christians) are also less fortunate,” he said. “Like most Egyptians, they are with little education and have difficult economic conditions.”

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