A merry Christmas for Egypt's Copts

Christmas this year was particularly joyful for Egypt's Copts, who celebrated yesterday both their traditional anniversary for the birth of Jesus and their Pope's return to Cairo after more than three years in exile. ``We are so very, very happy, because when he [the Pope] was gone, it was like a knife in the heart of every Copt,'' said Cairo doctor Helmi Makar.

What remains to be seen is how much 40 months in a remote, 4th-century monastery has changed a Pope the Copts admired for his persistent advocacy of their rights in an overwhelmingly Muslim society.

Both Copts and the government will carefully watch Pope Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, as he reasserts his authority in Cairo.

``The Pope believes the Copts are the true Egyptians,'' said an Egyptian official. ``They already had equality, but he wanted them to have privileges beyond their minority status. He was inciting sectarian problems, and [President Anwar] Sadat was not completely wrong to remove him. Now we will see what happens.''

Shenouda retired to the Wadi Natrun monastery in 1981 after then-President Sadat stripped him of official government recognition. Sadat held Shenouda responsible for violent confrontations that had flared between Copts and Muslims in the summer of 1981. The exile of Shenouda was denounced by his followers, who actively lobbied for his return.

``We think, from our point of view, that Sadat became crazy his last few years,'' said a Coptic lay official. Church officials continued to travel to Wadi Natrun to consult with the Pope on major church decisions during his exile.

President Hosni Mubarak announced the return of the Pope on New Year's Day. In a Christmas message to the Copts, President Mubarak blamed divisions between Muslims and Christians on ``colonialism'' and said Egypt was now unified.

In an interview with reporters in Wadi Natrun the day before he returned to Cairo, Pope Shenouda said he felt ``the situation in Egypt is far better now'' and ``the relationship between the government and the church is natural once more.''

Reporters and Copts who had known the Pope before his exile said he had become more subdued. ``He's not the firebrand he used to be,'' said one observer.

Egypt's Copts believe themselves to be the direct descendants of Pharaonic Egyptians, and therefore the ``true'' Egyptians. Copts prefer that their children marry within the church, and accuse church members who convert to Islam of doing so in order to advance in the Muslim society. ``We are treated as second-class citizens,'' said one Copt. ``We see it, we touch it, we feel it, but we cannot say it.''

The Copts list among their grievances underrepresentation in government. They point to the fact that only two Copts serve in Mubarak's 30-man Cabinet. (Of Egypt's 47 million people, some 6 million are Copts.) But not all Copts say that any significant discrimination is practiced against them in Egypt.

``The same people who complain about the Cabinet forget that the richest people in Egypt are Copt,'' said Marie Assad, a Copt who is deputy secretary general of the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

Complaints against the government, however, were put aside during the Christmas celebration, which really began Friday evening, when Shenouda reentered Cairo.

The bells of the Church of St. Mark pealed out a welcome as the black-robed Pope arrived in a blue van with an Egyptian security escort. Hundreds of Copts cheered, clapped, laughed, and wept when Shenouda again was seated in his ornately carved papal throne.

Copts had expected the Pope's release months before it was made official. Mubarak's gesture was seen here as a further indication of his increasing self-confidence.

The government, however, took no chances on Shenouda's return to the capital. Security men closely watched the quiet crowds that waited. It was known that the Pope would be allowed to return in time to preside over midnight mass Sunday in St. Mark's cavernous cathedral, but the time of his arrival was not revealed.

Thousands of Copts began their vigil Thursday at St. Mark's, a large complex that also includes the church administrative offices and the Pope's Cairo residence.

``If you had heard that your father will come after a long absence, you would wait, would you not?'' asked Raafat Hasabblah, a Coptic seminarian, who came at 3 a.m. Friday to await the Pope. ``That is how we feel. When he comes, we will be here to meet him.''

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