Millions of Egyptian Christians thronged churches across this mainly Muslim nation for Christmas Mass, held Monday amid unusually tight security but with congregations filled with hope ahead of a key vote on a new constitution that enshrines equality and criminalizes discrimination.
The stepped up security was in response to fears that Islamic militants loyal to ousted President Mohammed Morsi would target churches. Islamists claim that Egypt’s Christians played a disproportionately large role in the mass protests that preceded Morsi’s ouster in a July 3 coup.
Many churches, especially in southern Egyptian strongholds of radical Muslims, held Midnight Mass several hours early so that worshippers could avoid returning home after midnight when streets are empty, raising the possibility of attacks.
“We will pray under the night sky,” said Adel Shafiq, a Christian from the town of Dalga south of Cairo, who was attending Mass in a church looted and burned in August. “There is no roof and no windows. People are here wearing scarves and hats to fend off the night cold.”
At Cairo’s St. Mark’s Cathedral, seat of the Coptic Orthodox pope, police armed with machine-guns manned sandbag positions outside the towering structure. Hours before Mass, sniffing dogs were deployed to ensure there were no explosives planted inside.
Merry Christmas to Orthodox Christian readers!
’Cause nothing says Christmas like tanks and bomb-sniffing dogs.