x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

UAE Egyptians celebrate Coptic Christmas

Egyptian Christians across the UAE gather at the St Antonious Coptic Orthodox Church to celebrate Coptic Christmas.

Coptic Christians gathered for a Christmas Eve service at St Antonious Coptic Orthodox Church in Abu Dhabi. Delores Johnson / The National
Coptic Christians gathered for a Christmas Eve service at St Antonious Coptic Orthodox Church in Abu Dhabi. Delores Johnson / The National

ABU DHABI // More than 1,000 Egyptian Christians from across the UAE filled the capital’s Coptic Church last night to celebrate Christmas Eve.

The church’s two grand halls were overflowing with Egyptian worshippers, all dressed up for the occasion.

While parents prayed, their children stared in awe at chandeliers and stained-glass windows.

But as the majority of Christians had already celebrated Christmas on December 25, Rasha, a mother of two, said the different date for Coptic Christians was not easy to explain to the children.

“My children are young so it is not a problem now, but when they grow up they begin to wonder why the difference in dates,” she said. “The only difference is in the calendars. Otherwise we all have a Christmas tree and we have Santa Claus bringing in the presents.”

They were joined at the St Antonious Coptic Orthodox Church by senior UAE officials including Ali Al Hashimi, the religious and judicial affairs adviser at the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, as well as Emirati businessmen and women, who all came earlier to greet Esehak Anba Bishoy, the church’s priest, before the service.

“I always say it is the kind nation; the UAE has great values,” Father Bishoy said. “I have not seen tolerance as in the UAE.”

Muslims took part in the service for a second consecutive year, lighting candles at the back of the room.

Muslims had lit candles for Christmas Eve for the first time last year, following violent clashes in Egypt when thousands of Coptic Christians marched to the state television building to protest against the burning of a church. The clashes left 26 dead and hundreds injured.

“We were very upset after the incident, and the people who came were not only leaders, but ordinary families,” Rasha said. “We felt there was unity. We also felt this today. It makes a big difference. This is the real Egyptian society, this is what we were brought up with, together. This is the support we are looking for.”

Father Bishoy said their participation was a kind gesture of unity.

This year many expressed worry about the political climate back home, primarily over the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Father Bishoy said there was no place for religion in politics.

“Religion is for worship, and politics is for politics,” he said. “You cannot have an engineer also be a doctor. The situation in Egypt needs wisdom from the leadership.”

It was wrong, he said, for Egypt’s leaders to tell their people they would be rewarded by God if they voted for the new constitution that cements the powers of the president, Mohamed Morsi.

“That is mixing of religion in politics, this will affect the simple people in Egypt,” he said. “We do not fear for Egypt, we know God will bless Egypt. Egypt has a big long civilisation, which won’t be easily changed. Worldwide, Egypt is known for its greatness.”

He said society was still divided, but this time it was not between Christians and Muslims, but among Muslims themselves.

“Even in families there is a division, which has never been there before. We pray for peace. It is not the issue of Muslims and Christians now, it is an Egyptian and an Egyptian.” He said they prayed for national unity in Egypt.

He and Saad Rizallah, a prominent Coptic, said Egypt should learn from the UAE and fellow Arabian Gulf nations in their “moderate Islam and religious tolerance”. “Here they let people follow their own religion peacefully,” Mr Rizallah said.

Father Bishoy added this was evident in the size of the plot of land the Coptics had been given to build cathedrals for their 30,000 worshippers. “The Government even pays for our electricity and water, what other country does that? Worldwide I do not think there is any place better than this. Even those living in America, they say this place is the best, not just in churches, but also society.”

Christians stayed well into the night for gospel readings, followed by a dinner in the early hours of Christmas morning.