Egypt Christians celebrate Christmas

A woman holds a card with the photo of Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as he speaks during Christmas Eve Mass at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo. (Nariman El-Mofty, AP)
A woman holds a card with the photo of Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as he speaks during Christmas Eve Mass at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo. (Nariman El-Mofty, AP)

Cairo - Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Christians have flocked to churches to attend Masses on Christmas Eve across the predominantly Muslim country, as the government continues to battle a burgeoning Islamic insurgency.

Police painstakingly searched more than 300 churches in the capital, Cairo, alone for explosive devices, according to police spokesperson Gamal Halawa. Roadblocks were set up before churches nationwide and cars and motorcycles were temporarily banned from idling in front of them, he added.

Police targeted "any attempt to spoil the joy of the celebrations with decisive and firm action," Halawa said.

Militant attacks have multiplied after the military overthrew Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, spreading from the restive Sinai Peninsula and striking the mainland numerous times in recent months. 

Some extremists in Sinai have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and claimed the downing of a Russian airliner that killed 224 people there last year.

Rare public apology

Egypt's Orthodox Coptic Christians strongly supported the bid to overthrow the first freely elected, but divisive leader. Ever since, Christian gatherings have been at a greater risk of attacks. Following Morsi's toppling, many Islamists claimed Christians had conspired with the military against them as attacks on Christian homes, businesses and churches surged south of Cairo.

"We have been late in restoring and fixing what has been burned. Everything will be fixed. ... Please accept our apologies for what happened," President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who as military chief led Morsi's overthrow,  told the Christian crowds at Cairo's St. Mark Cathedral in a rare public apology and acknowledgement of the attacks.

El-Sissi, widely seen as a savior by Christians, received a rock star greeting at the cathedral, the sea of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Security forces apparently failed to contain the cheering, flowers-throwing crowds on el-Sissi's way out of the church, forcing them to turn back and leave from a different exit.

Throughout history, Egyptian presidents never attended Christmas masses, making el-Sissi's visit this year, the second of its kind, doubly appreciated. The grinning president was joined by Muslim cabinet members, prominent pro-state media personalities and public figures.

Egypt's Orthodox Coptic Christians make up about 10% of the country's 90 million people. The Copts have long complained of discrimination, which many say still exists even under el-Sissi.

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