Egypt’s Coptic Christians Celebrate Christmas

A villager wearing a traditional peasant galabiya gown inspects Christmas trees in El Kosheh, Egypt, on Dec. 18, 2018. RNS photo by Fady Hadny

EL KOSHEH, Egypt (RNS) — This Coptic Christian village about 280 miles south of Cairo calls itself “Little Jerusalem.”

Around this time of year, many of the village’s 40,000 residents recall their frequent pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which include a stop at Bethlehem’s Grotto of the Nativity.

“We make our own papier-mâché scenes of the Grotto of Christmas as a symbol of the holy infant who was born poor in a cave,” said Ne’mat al-Qumos, 52, a vice principal at El Kosheh’s public high school.

Like many other Orthodox Christian communities in the Middle East, Egypt’s 20 million Copts portray the birth of Jesus as happening in a cave, not the wooden stable in the manger scenes prevalent in Europe and the United States.

Because they follow the Julian calendar, they celebrate Christmas Eve on Jan. 6, and feasts are held on Christmas Day, Jan. 7.

Some now argue this ancient community should change the dates to Dec. 24-25 as a sign of global Christian unity. The idea is drawing mixed reaction in a community that is already experiencing change in its longstanding Christmas traditions.

Evergreen fir trees don’t grow in the Nile Valley, so the Christmas tree is a relative newcomer to a landscape of sugar cane, wheat and cotton fields and date palms. Today a 9-foot-tall Christmas tree, along with El Kosheh’s biggest nativity grotto, decorates the courtyard of the Church of the Martyrs and the Archangel Michael, the largest of 10 congregations in the town.

“The Christmas tree did not arrive here until after the big massacre,” said al-Qumos, referring to a January 2000 clash with Muslims from a neighboring village that erupted in El Kosheh after a disputebetween a Muslim trader and a Christian shop owner.  Twenty-one local residents were killed. Some were crucified.

Church spires dot the skyline of the Coptic Christian town of El Kosheh, Egypt. RNS photo by Fady Hadny

Today the violence persists despite President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s support for the community, including giving Coptic civil servants the same paid leave to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem as their Muslim peers receive to make the hajj to Mecca. El-Sissi has also attended Christmas celebrations in Cairo.

Earlier this month, rogue security guards shot two Christians outside their church in Minya. In November, militants ambushed three buses carrying pilgrims on their way to a remote desert monastery, killing seven people and wounding 19.

“We needed joy after the bitter grief we lived, and the beautiful lights and adornments of Christmas trees helped us,” al-Qumos said.

Still, as plastic trees imported from China have become ubiquitous in the rural Coptic heartland, shifting Christmas traditions are simultaneously embraced and questioned.

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Source: Religion News Service