Pope Shenouda III attends the Coptic Christmas eve mass in Cairo
Pope Shenouda III attends the Coptic Christmas Eve mass in Cairo. Reuters

There are no glittering strings of lights on the streets of Cairo as Egypt approaches the Christmas holiday, celebrated by Coptic Orthodox Christians on Jan. 7. Religious celebrations are hushed, and the mood is somber.

Christmas Eve Mass will be held in churches all across the country on Jan. 6, as it has been for centuries. Pope Tawadros II will travel from his home in the coastal city of Alexandria to lead the main service at the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo.

On the same date two years ago, in 2011, the Cairo worshippers were clothed in black. That was just weeks before Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution would begin, but the Copts’ attitude of mourning had little to do with politics. It was instead a reaction to a New Year’s Day bomb that had just killed 23 people at a church in Alexandria. Islamist extremists were suspected, but no one has ever been tried for the crime.

Last year, the ceremony was more hopeful. It was the first time ever that members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab Islamic organization, were openly in attendance. Even still, there was unmistakable tension in the air, and the area surrounding the cathedral was thick with security officials.

This time around, Egypt’s Christians are hoping for another peaceful mass. But the situation is far from stable as a new government, led President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, struggles to calm unrest despite a faltering economy and deficient security forces.

Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, but they have been victims of discrimination -- and often violence -- for centuries. In post-revolution Egypt, many Copts are dismayed to find that they are even less empowered today than they were under the autocratic former President Hosni Mubarak.

But that hasn’t stopped them from advocating for justice, in Egypt and from expatriate communities all around the world.

A Volatile Mix

The Coptic Church maintains an official distance from political affairs, but in practice the two cannot be separated. Christians have long faced some degree of persecution in Egypt, and their safety depends partly on the ability of the state to protect its minority citizens.

“Under Mubarak there was discrimination, but there was some level of security in the country,” says Michael Meunier, a Coptic Christian who is in Cairo to attend the pope’s Christmas Eve service. “Right now, people don’t have security anymore. Churches are being attacked.”

Meunier heads the liberal political party al-Haya, which will compete in upcoming parliamentary elections -- but only if the electoral rules have improved since the last round, which saw a sweeping victory for Islamists one year ago. The lower house of parliament was later disbanded by the courts.

Al-Haya is focused on economic recovery and domestic security. And although Meunier asserts that the party represents people of all religions -- not just Copts -- those are two issues that affect Egypt’s Christians directly.

The national economy is sputtering as Egypt struggles to cobble a new government together. Its pound is sliding precipitously against the American dollar. The cost of living is becoming untenable for Egyptian citizens, more than one-fourth of whom live in poverty. And Coptic Christians, who rely heavily on private enterprise after decades of public sector discrimination, are feeling the pinch.

As for security, it is clear from protests that erupted only last month that the streets are as mean as ever. Thousands of Copts, liberals and secular Egyptians gathered in Cairo and Alexandria to protest a controversial new constitution that enshrined Islam as a source of inspiration for its legislation. Supporters of the draft also showed up in force. Clashes erupted, and police forces sprayed tear gas in a vain attempt to impose order.

The constitution passed a public referendum on Dec. 23, reminding the opposition that most of the population favors an Islamist government. Now, it’s one day at a time for Meunier and like-minded liberals. He only hopes that the Copts who gather en masse for Christmas Eve this year can celebrate the holiday in peace.

“There is a worry that somebody will go crazy and do something violent; that concern is always there,” he said. “But we understand that the majority of Muslims in Egypt are not fanatics, and we hope that common sense will prevail.”

Deep Roots, Wide Branches

Amid the upheaval of the past couple years, the number of Egyptians fleeing the country has swelled. Asylum seekers have doubled since 2011, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Millions of Coptic Christians now live outside of Egypt, forming expatriate communities in countries as diverse as Kuwait, South Africa, Switzerland and Australia. The majority of Coptic Christians outside of Egypt are residing in the United States.

John Estafanous is one of them. Though he was born in Egypt, he has lived outside its borders for most of his life. Today he is a member of Chicago Copts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to Coptic culture.

“We’re under the auspices of the Holy Church in Alexandria, and we follow the Coptic Pope,” said Estafanous. He explained that in Chicago, as in a myriad of other cities around the world, Coptic Christians will attend a church service on Jan. 6.

The tradition has deep roots, since the history of Christianity in Egypt goes back to the very first days of anno domini. Jesus himself was taken to Egypt as a child to escape the wrath of King Herod in Jerusalem, according to the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament. Just a few decades later, Mark the Apostle is said to have traveled to Alexandria to lay the foundation for the growth of Christianity along the Nile River.

The proselytization was successful. Christianity was the major religion in Egypt for centuries until Islamic forces swept the region during the 600s. Saint Mark is now considered the first leader of the Coptic Church; the 117 popes that have come after him are his successors.

Pope Tawadros II was ordained last November, following the death of the much-beloved Pope Shenouda III in March. In the 20 centuries since it was first established, things have clearly changed for the Alexandria papacy. Unlike Mark the Apostle, Tawadros II has a Twitter account.

What hasn’t changed is the feeling of isolation that many Copts have felt since Islam swept the country so many years ago. This is a trying time for the religious minorities of Egypt -- but trying times are nothing new.

Asked whether Tawadros II was shaping up to be an effective leader for the Coptic Church in this time of turmoil, Estafanous was succinct.

“Each Pope has their own personality,” he said. “The Church has been going through turmoil since the Crusades.”

The Good Word

The more things change in Egypt, it seems, the more things stay the same. Egyptian society has seen a sea change in recent years, but Coptic Christians are still fighting to stake their claim in the land they call home.

Political figures like Meunier know that now is a time of great opportunity to demand protection for minority rights. As Egypt’s fledgling government finds its way, the rules of governance are still malleable.

“The Coptic community is under a great deal of pressure,” Meunier said, adding that Pope Tawadros II has already shown himself to be a capable leader in times of trouble.

“He has been forceful for the rights of Christians for the short time he has been in office … His first statements have made it quite clear that Christians in Egypt are suffering. I expect he will probably run the church in a sophisticated and professional way.”

Meanwhile, activists abroad endeavor to increase awareness worldwide.

“Of course we are worried, so we do what we can here to help out our brothers overseas,” said Estafanous from Chicago. “We talk to congressmen and arrange demonstrations. We do the best we can, but it’s hard to do something when you’re thousands of miles away.”

As another new year brings another tense Christmas for Egypt’s Christians, the Copts still hope for peace against all odds.

“It will be another difficult Christmas for sure,” says Meunier. “Every Christmas is just one more difficult Christmas.”