CAIRO — Egypt's minority Christians were celebrating their first Christmas after the election of an Islamist president and a new pope — and following adoption of a constitution many argue has an Islamist slant.
Christians gathered Sunday in Cairo's main cathedral for Midnight Mass on the eve of Orthodox Christmas led by their new pope. Pope Tawadros II was elected in November to succeed longtime Pope Shenouda III, who died in March after 40 years as the leader of the church.
Islamist President Mohammed Morsi called Tawadros with Christmas greetings and sent one of his aides to the Mass.
Concerned for their future and their ancient heritage in Egypt, some Copts reportedly are considering leaving the country.
As Egypt struggles with the role of religion in society, many Copts are aligning themselves with moderate Muslims and secular Egyptians who also fear the rise of Islamic power.
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.”
“Christians are approaching Christmas with disappointment, grief and complaints, fearing not only their problems but Egypt's situation in general,” Ramzy said. “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.
Following 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.
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, adding that Egypt has been deeply polarized as it drafted the constitution.
Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher who monitors religious freedom cases in Egypt, said Coptic Christians are facing two new sets of problems: cases of insulting Islam and fear for their life style because of increasingly assertive radical Islamists.
In October, two Coptic boys were put in a juvenile detention after locals accused them of urinating on pages of the Quran, Islam's holy book. It was one in a series of cases against Coptic Christians in the same period, following the fury over an anti-Islam film produced in the United States. The case against the boys was later dropped after mediation.
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.”