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Where Faith Runs Deep, Cairo Suicide Bombing Sparks Fear During Orthodox Christmas

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It was Christmas yesterday for the more than 250 million Orthodox Christians around the world. Among those celebrating was the biggest Christian community in the Middle East, Egypt's Orthodox Coptic Christians. But as NPR's Jane Arraf reports from Cairo, it's an uneasy holiday season this year.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Christmas Eve on the street outside St. Sergius and Bacchus, the oldest church in Cairo. There are Egyptian security forces with rifles and armored vehicles. It's because an ISIS suicide bomber blew himself up in a church in Cairo last month. Twenty-five people died. Egypt's Coptic Christians were among the first to embrace Christianity almost 2,000 years ago. They make up almost 10 percent of the mostly Muslim country. Faith here runs particularly deep. As the bells toll for midnight mass, families dressed in their best clothes hurry into the small brick church with a wooden roof shaped like Noah's Ark.

JULIETTE ZAKARIA: (Through interpreter) The churches that are most threatened have the most people in them. It's a way to show we hold on to our faith.

ARRAF: That's Juliette Zakaria, one of the worshippers. Zakaria says Christians have been persecuted here since Roman times. She joins one of the rows of women with their hair covered with scarves made of lace or depicting saints. Men sit on the other side. Most of them have fasted, given up meat, eggs and milk for the past 40 days.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

ARRAF: There's been a church on this spot for 1,700 years, built on the site where the faithful believe Jesus, Mary and Joseph took refuge, fleeing to Egypt after King Herod ordered all baby boys born in Bethlehem killed. Christians in modern-day Egypt face their own persecution. Over the last few years, Muslim extremists have destroyed churches and killed Christians in other parts of the country. Father Angelos Gergos, who is conducting the service, has told me that Christians here support President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who took power in a military coup, because he's trying to protect them.

ANGELOS GERGOS: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: But Father Angelos doesn't touch on any of that in his sermon. He tells worshippers to remember that there's more to life than working or money. Here, religion isn't just going to mass on Sundays. For generation upon generation, it's been a vibrant living faith.

GERGOS: (Praying in foreign language).

ARRAF: The service goes on for hours. As it does, two young girls have wandered away to sit on the floor in a vestibule, chatting and looking at photos on a phone. Joyce is in fourth grade. Her friend Magi was killed in the bombing of the church in Cairo a few weeks ago. Joyce says, though, she's happy.

JOYCE: I'm happy. I'm not sad. I'm happy because she's in a good place.

MARIA: With God.

ARRAF: With God, her friend Maria adds. Those who died in the bombings are considered martyrs who can intercede in heaven for those on Earth, a long line of martyrs and saints going back 2,000 years.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Cairo.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, there are references to Coptic Christians attending “mass.” The references should have been to the “divine liturgy” or to “worship.”] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 9, 2017 at 12:00 AM EST
In this story, there are references to Coptic Christians attending Mass. The references should have been to the divine liturgy or to worship.