Christians mark mournful Christmas Eve Mass

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s Christians packed churches Thursday for mournful Christmas Eve Masses, weeping and donning black in place of colorful holiday clothes, under a heavy security cordon by police out of fear of another attack like the New Year’s suicide bombing of a church that killed 21 people.

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Egyptian policemen guard the church that was bombed on New Year’s as Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on Thursday in Alexandria, Egypt.

At church gates around the country, police and church staff checked the IDs of those entering the services — and their wrists, where many Egyptian Christians bear the tattoo of a cross.

Al-Qaida in Iraq had threatened Christians in Iraq and Egypt in the weeks leading up to the holidays and Saturday’s deadly bombing. Militant websites have even posted names and addresses of churches in Egypt to target, raising fears of a follow-up attack on celebrations of the Orthodox Christmas, which Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority marks on Friday.

Still, turnout was heavy, as Christians said they were determined to attend. Muslims also joined some services as a show of solidarity, getting permission from church officials ahead of time to get through police limiting access to Christians.

The two faiths were struggling to find some kind of healing after the deadliest attack on the minority community in a decade. Saturday’s attack unleashed a wave of fury by Copts over what they say is deep anti-Christian sentiment among Muslims and the state’s failure to address it and protect Christians. For days afterward, Copts clashed with police in unusually fierce riots, and there was concern of new unrest after Thursday’s Mass.

But healing was hard to come by, with some Copts skeptical anything will change.

“Some Muslims are good people,” said Raymonda Ramzy, a 45-year-old worshipper dressed in black entering Mass at the main Coptic Church in the Cairo district of Giza. “But even on my way here, a couple of young men shouted at me, ‘God take you all and rid us of you.’”

While some worried about attending services for fear of attack, she said, “I never hesitated. I wish I could die in church.”

State TV gave heavy coverage to the Christmas Eve Mass to promote a sense of unity. As it has in past years, it broadcast live Pope Shenouda III leading prayers and delivering his sermon at Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral. The 87-year-old head of the Coptic Church recited the prayers in a tired-sounding, cracking voice.

This year, the ceremony was also preceded by a live discussion by a team of prominent TV hosts and newscasters, all dressed in black, standing on the cathedral steps and speaking of the bonds between Muslims and Christians. A tiny logo of an intersecting cross and crescent was set in the corner of the screen. Christmas was declared a national holiday several years ago, in a nod by the government to inclusiveness.

“Today, I don’t say I’m Muslim or I’m Christian,” one of the hosts pronounced. “I say, I’m Egyptian.”

But many Copts are jaded by routine expressions of unity repeated after previous violence. Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority makes up 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people but complains of widespread discrimination they say relegates them to second-class citizen status. There has been growing anti-Christian violence in past years, mostly shootings or clashes between Christians and Muslims in villages.

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