01/04/2013, 00.00
EGYPT
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Al-Azhar rejects Salafist threats, extends Christmas greetings to Orthodox Copts

Ahmed al-Tayeb, grand imam al-Azhar, makes the announcement during a meeting with Coptic Patriarch Tawadros II. Coptic community prepares for Orthodox Christmas on 7 January.

Cairo (AsiaNews) - Next Monday, al-Azhar leaders will extend their Christmas greetings to Egypt's Coptic community, said Ahmed al-Tayeb, grand imam at al-Azhar, the most important Sunni university. In so doing, he is openly rejecting the attitude of Salafists who threatened Muslims who want to share Christmas with Christians or just extend Christmas greetings to them.

In a meeting with Coptic Orthodox Patriarch Tawadros II, al-Tayeb said that al-Azhar "rejects and condemns statements by some extremist figures. As in previous years, we shall greet the Coptic community with 'Merry Christmas'." According to Orthodox tradition, which follows the Julian calendar, the birth of Christ falls on 7 January.

Since the start of the Arab spring, more and more websites and TV stations have broadcast sermons by Salafist religious leaders, many of whom were in prison during the Mubarak regime.

Death threats against Christians have become common place on TV and in newspapers. With the passing of the constitution that recognises Sharia as a basis of legislation, radical leaders have been emboldened.

In the past few days, Hesham el Ashry, a Salafist leader who founded the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice Authority, issued threats against Muslims who extended Christmas greetings to Christians, calling them "traitors" and "apostates" if they do.

His message was eventually picked up by other radical leaders whose dream is a completely Islamised Egypt.

El- Ashry also said that his movement plans to convince Christians to change religion, telling women to wear a veil.

Against this background of tensions, Orthodox Copts are preparing to celebrate Christmas, showing the joy of the festivity to their Muslim compatriots, this despite fears that Egypt might be Islamised.

Still, many are emotionally conflicted. "We Christians are not afraid," said Nasser Abu Ghaly, a teacher in Shubra, a mixed Christian-Muslim working-class neighbourhood in Cairo, "but we are concerned about our children and families. In any event, as Copts and Egyptians we have right to pray to our God."

In predominantly Christian areas in Cairo all the windows and balconies are decked out with coloured lights, garlands and religious symbols. But in the parish of  the Virgin and Mar (Saint) Mina Church, Copts celebrate Christmas with their Muslim neighbours who often take part in religious services and extend Christmas greetings to Coptic Orthodox families.

On Christmas Eve, local sources expect the small church to be overflowing with people, many following Midnight Mass in silence in the churchyard and the streets.

A few months ago, the church made the front page when a group of Salafists tried to seize land belonging to Mar Mina parish in order to turn it into a mosque.

The attempt did not cause any clashes, but it was as a clear warning to local Christians who had planned to build a new parish building on the same land, which they owned.

"Tensions have been running high among locals," said Mar Mina parish priest Fr Felopater Rateb Towfiles. "Everyone is trying to be careful not to provoke Islamists."

"Thank God that none of us got into a row with the Salafists," Fr Towfiles said. "Otherwise, there would have been a massacre."

In fact, "At the time, Christians were unarmed whilst Salafists had automatic weapons and grenades," which the clergyman saw with his own eyes, he said.

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