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Fear marks Coptic Christians' Christmas

Analysis: New Year's bombing in Egypt highlights ongoing marginalization of Christians in Middle East.

Coptic Christians
An Orthodox priest celebrates Christmas mass on January 6, 2011 at Marseille's Coptic church. On displayed is a copy of blood-stained portrait of Jesus Christ to mark the bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt on New Year's Eve, in which 21 people were killed. Security was reinforced at 19 Coptic churches in France, national police said, after 'threats made on the internet by Islamic mujahedeens who threatened other attacks in Europe and in France in particular. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON — The violence unfolding in Egypt since the New Year’s Eve bombing of a Coptic Christian church that killed 23 people and wounded more than 100 may seem unfathomable and far away.

Islamic militants fueled by a hateful and warped theology of Al Qaeda are targeting a Christian minority in Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere, imperiling a living presence of Christianity in the Middle East that stretches back to the very origins of the faith in Bethlehem.

These Coptic Christians in Egypt celebrate Christmas this evening at a midnight service which honors the birth of Jesus on the Orthodox calendar, which pre-dates the Western Christian calendar.

It’s traditionally a night for a quiet church vigil and a big celebration with lots of family and lots of delicious Egyptian recipes for lamb and rolled grape leaves and rice pudding.

But this Christmas is gripped with fear for Copts. They’re demanding police protection at Coptic churches not only in Egypt, but all over the world, including Europe, Australia and right here in the United States, where Egyptians have settled in immigrant communities as part of a steady, but rising, exodus in recent years of hundreds of thousands of Christians from the Middle East.

So while this conflict may seem far away and just one more confusing chapter of Middle East violence, it is closer to home than most people here realize. It’s close to home because it’s an issue that should concern people of all faiths anywhere. It is physically close to home for Westerners because Egyptian Christians have a sizeable presence all over the world in places like Massachusetts, Florida, New York, New Jersey and in Australia, Canada and many other countries.

For my own family, the Egyptian Coptic presence is as close to home as our local pizza shop where the Abrahim family has been making delicious cheese and pepperoni pies for as long as we can remember in our small, country town in Massachusetts. They emigrated from Cairo and are American citizens. They are also neighbors and friends. So when we went to see them Wednesday to wish them a merry Christmas, we were sad to see them so consumed with fear.

“It will be hard to celebrate the joy of Christmas at a time like this,” said Mary Abrahim, 44, who along with her husband owns the Bolton House of Pizza in Bolton, Mass.

In the pizza shop, on one wall hangs a framed Coptic icon of Mother Mary holding the baby Jesus on “The Flight Into Egypt,” which is the Biblical story of the Holy Family fleeing King Herod by traveling along the Nile. There’s also a smaller picture of their beloved Coptic Pope Shenouda, who heads the Coptic church which tradition holds was founded by St. Mark the Evangelist in the 1st Century A.D., taped to the cash register.

Mary Abrahim was juggling incessant phone calls for pizza deliveries, which were mixed in with cell phone calls from Alexandria and Cairo from friends and relatives talking about funeral arrangements for those killed in the attack.

The phones just kept ringing with a surreal mix of the mundane (“A large with peppers and onions? OK … Twenty minutes.”) to the horrifying (Speaking in Arabic: “Oh my God! When is the funeral for them?” Covering the receiver she tells me in English of a whole family of Copts who were visiting Alexandria from Australia who were killed).

Farid Nagashe, 31, who emigrated from Alexandria six years ago and had to leave behind his wife and their daughter, was holding a phone to his ear as he opened the hot ovens and used the long wooden paddle to slide another pizza into its blasting heat. He winced from the heat while speaking in Arabic and then gesturing with despair. His wife and daughter were OK, but he had just learned he lost two cousins.

Mary and Farid were worried about whether their church in Natick, Mass., St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, would have a police detail for the Christmas service as they said the church has received bomb threats. There were reports that numerous Coptic churches in Egypt and around the Middle East were also receiving threats.

The civil unrest in the wake of the attacks is serious in Egypt. The small, but vocal, Christian minority has reacted in anger to what they see as the weak and ineffective response of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government.