Yesterday was the Eastern Orthodox Christmas Eve for Egypt's Coptic community. Across Egypt, Muslims came out to support their Christian neighbors, risking their own lives to protect a religious minority. It was an inspiring sign of unity and support, at a time when religious conflict threatens the region and the world.
Just a week earlier, on January 1st, there was a bombing at a Coptic church in Alexandria. Blamed on Islamic extremists, the New Year's Day attack on a church killed over 20 Egyptian Christians, and injured dozens of people. Adding to the tension, a video attributed to Al Qaeda widely circulated on the Internet, called the "Jihadi Encyclopedia for the Destruction of the Cross," featured a line calling on Muslims in Egypt to "blow up churches while Copts are celebrating Christmas or any other time when churches are packed." Anxiety among the nation's Coptic Christians, who make up approximately 10 percent of the 80 million population, was at a high in the wake of the New Years Day attack.
But Muslims turned up in droves for the Coptic Christmas mass Thursday night, offering their bodies and lives as "human shields" to Egypt’s threatened Christian community. Egypt’s majority Muslim population stood in solidarity with the fearful Coptic community, as thousands of Muslims showed up at churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside. They made a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and work towards an Egypt free from sectarian conflict, announcing "We either live together, or we die together, we are all Egyptians."
Below is a picture of Muslims surrounding Christians on their way to church services.
In the days following the brutal attack on All Saints Church in Alexandria, solidarity between Muslims and Copts has seen an unprecedented peak. Millions of Egyptians changed their Facebook profile pictures to the image of a cross within a crescent, the symbol of an "Egypt for All". Around the city, banners went up calling for unity, and depicting mosques and churches, crosses and crescents, together as one.
Among the human shields were movie stars Adel Imam and Yousra, popular preacher Amr Khaled, the two sons of President Hosni Mubarak, and thousands of citizens who have said they consider the attack one on Egypt as a whole. They were determined to send a message that transcends religious differences... the majority of the nation would not stand for extremist violence and persecution. "This is not about us and them. We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together," explained one Muslim student.
The terror attack that struck the country on New Year's Eve was in many ways the final straw. It was a breaking point, not just for the Coptic community, but for Muslims as well, who also feel marginalized, persecuted, and overlooked by a government that fails to address their needs. On this Coptic Christmas Eve, the solidarity was not just one of religion, but of a desperate and collective plea for a better life and a government with accountability.
"This is it. It is time to change and unite," said journalist Ekram Youssef. She added that although it is the government's responsibility to act and find solutions, "it is time for Egyptian citizens to act to revive the true meaning of national unity." One Muslim woman explained, "I am not going as a representative of any religion. I am supporting all those who died as a result of ignorance." Another stated, "I want to show the world that Islam is a religion of peace and that such attacks are nothing more than a result of poverty, ignorance, and oppression."
In his sermon, one priest thanked the Muslims for attending. "This is the way our Egypt climbs new heights."