Egypt’s military vows to protect churches on Christmas; Copts protest Pope’s invitations

Cairo, Egypt - Egypt’s military rulers have given their orders to the armed forces to collaborate with the interior ministry and all political powers in securing the New Year’s Eve celebrations due to be held in Egypt’s churches.

A statement by the Supreme Council for Armed Forces (SCAF) posted Friday on Facebook said that the orders were given by SCAF chief Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi to “show the whole world the civilization and peacefulness of this great country.”

Last year, more than 20 people were killed in an apparent suicide bombing as hundreds of worshippers were leaving al-Qidissin (The Saints) church in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria after a New Year’s eve mass.

In January 2010, six Copts were shot dead as they emerged from a Coptic Christmas Eve mass. A Muslim security guard was also killed in the shooting.

Dozens of Coptic youth staged a protest inside Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral on Friday against Pope Shenouda’s invitation to Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood to attend the Christmas Eve Mass on Jan. 7, Egypt’s state-run al-Ahram daily said on its website Friday.

Pope Shenouda sent invitations for all political factions to attend the Christmas Eve Mass including Islamist, a church source said on Wednesday, according to Egypt’s al-Masry al-Youm daily.

The source said that Shenouda insisted on inviting all Egyptians and political parties regardless of affiliation to celebrate the birth of Christ.

Coptic Christians, who form the largest Christian sect in Egypt at about 10 percent of the population, celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7 each year.

Al-Ahram said the invitation was strongly opposed by some Christian political movements who objected to the invitation of Islamists.

Ramy Kamel, general coordinator of the Maspero Youth Union called for an open-ended sit on Jan. 5 inside the cathedral to reject the Pope’s desire to receive Islamists in the church, according to al-Ahram report.

Coptic Christians, who make up around 10 percent of Egypt’s 82 million population, have been the target of frequent attacks and complain of systematic discrimination.

Clashes took place between Muslims and Christians last May in Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba after rumors were circulated that a Christian girl who converted to Islam was being held in a church. The clashes left at least 15 people dead, and the church was burned.

Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood said on Wednesday it would protect churches during Coptic Christmas in January in a bid to prevent deadly attacks on Christian places of worship.

“We have decided to form Muslim Brotherhood committees to protect the churches so that the hands of sin do not ruin the festivities like they did several times under the old regime,” the group said in a statement.

The Middle East’s largest Christian community has also become increasingly concerned about the rise of Islamists’ political influence since the uprising that toppled Mubarak.