Egypt Declares Coptic Christmas a Holiday

Religion News Service

In a small, ancient chapel tucked away in Old Cairo, Hanaa Sarwat, a college graduate, came to pray and light candles. Sarwat, a Coptic Christian, traveled nine hours by train from Upper Egypt to visit some of the oldest churches in the world, which are found here.

"It is one of my happiest days," she said as she stood next to the wooden door leading into the chapel. Dozens of shoes were scattered in front of the door, which is more than 21 feet high and dates to the 10th century. Visitors must take off their shoes before they can enter the chapel.

This is a special time for Coptic Christians, who make up about 10% of the population of Egypt, which is predominantly Muslim. The Coptic Orthodox Church observes Christmas on Jan. 7 this year. The date signals an end to the 45-day fast that many Copts observe.

This Christmas is unique because President Hosni Mubarak has declared it a national holiday. Historically, only Muslim holidays have been national ones while only Copts were allowed to take the day off on Christmas.

Though some Copts reacted to Mubarak's decision with indifference, others said it reflected a deeper meaning for them.

"It makes a big difference," said Tamer Besada, a cafeteria employee. It means that Christianity in Egypt is getting its rights, he said.

Tahani Samir Sadek, a government employee, said the decision would eliminate the negative feelings that a few of her Muslim co-workers had when they worked while she took the day off.

"It will create more harmony and closeness," George Louis said as he sat in the chapel. As he spoke, Copts moved inside to whisper prayers. Others touched and circled parts of their bodies with a metal chain that tradition holds was used to torture a Coptic saint.

Around the corner at the Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus -- the oldest church in Cairo -- tourists and people coming to pray flooded the benches. According to Coptic teachings, the church is built atop one of the sites where Jesus and the Virgin Mary rested.

This Christmas will be particularly joyful, said Sami Riyad Awad, 60, a retired bank employee. This time, "all of us are celebrating."

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