Egyptians rarely have a first of any kind, their history running as it does to over 5,000 years. This month they got one, at least in modern history: President Hosni Mubarak declared Christmas a public holiday.
Following the Eastern church calendar, the celebration in Egypt each year is Jan. 7. The day is by custom a private family time for Christians; a problematic day for students who face university exams this time of year. This year, in a country that is almost 90 percent Muslim, everyone could take the day off.
On the streets of Cairo Mr. Mubarak's decree did not translate into sudden public displays. The lights along Nile promenades always twinkle, and multi-colored bulbs strung around palm trees in the shopping districts of Heliopolis are more about New Year festivities than the celebration of Jesus' birth.
But inside Cairo's churches the country's Christians-numbering about 9 million out of 70 million-celebrated. At a Sunday evening Christmas service Jan. 5 at Kasr el Dobara, the largest evangelical church in the Middle East, nearly 2,000 jammed into wooden pews before filling rows of overflow seating outside in a balmy courtyard. When one church leader praised Mr. Mubarak's decree, the congregation rose in unison to applaud.
Church stalwarts recognize, however, that the move was a political one for Mr. Mubarak. "He wants to show the world he is taking care of Christians," said Meser Abdul Noor, a 27-year veteran as pastor of Kasr el Dobara. "It did not cost him much inside Egypt."
Mr. Mubarak is under steady pressure from the United States to prove he is on the right side of history in the war on terror. Although his government is a U.S. ally, the country has had a hard time shaking ties to al-Qaeda. World Trade Center attacker Mohammad Atta grew up in Cairo. Several Egyptians, including al-Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, are longtime Osama bin Laden colleagues.
Neither side is saying whether the Bush administration asked Mr. Mubarak to give a Christmas present to Egypt's Christians. Church leaders do say that it coincides with other signs of Mr. Mubarak's willingness to loosen some restrictions. "We are in a much better situation than ever before," Mr. Noor told WORLD. "We have converts from Islamic extremists but not threats."
The government, according to Mr. Noor, is not jailing those who convert from Islam to Christianity as it once did. Instead, those cases are now reported to families. That can lead to sometimes worse private penalties. Converts face divorce, loss of parental rights, loss of property, even attacks and death threats from family members who view conversion as betrayal.
The government recently changed another law that required churches to win presidential approval for church maintenance. Mr. Noor said it had been a way to block church growth. "You didn't fix the latch of a toilet without the president's signature," he told WORLD. Mr. Mubarak has handed that responsibility off to local governments, and church planning and maintenance are easing.
What hasn't changed is the law requiring Egyptian identity cards to state religious affiliation. It remains illegal to change religious ID. Nonetheless, Muslims, according to Mr. Noor, are experiencing fewer problems if they become Christians-"unless they want to be evangelists," he said. If a convert tells others about his newfound faith, or tries to change his ID card to state that he is a Christian, he will likely run into trouble.
Mr. Noor, despite age-71-and stature-about 5 feet-is no stranger to trouble. He baptizes as many as 50 Muslim converts a year. The record earns him human-rights awards in the United States but occasional threats at home. Two years ago a Muslim carrying three pistols suddenly appeared in front of the desk in his study. The young man pointed the guns one after another at Mr. Noor's head before turning them to the wall, demonstrating an empty chamber in one and loaded chambers in the other two. Mr. Noor says he smiled at the man and invited him to sit down. Later he came on a weekly basis for Bible training, even confessed faith in Christ and began taking communion. Then he disappeared, Mr. Noor said, within a year of coming to the church.
Mr. Noor credits Richard Wurmbrand, the Romanian underground Christian activist who founded Voice of the Martyrs, with teaching him fortitude. "If you are scared," Mr. Wurmbrand once told him, "they will scare you. If you are not scared, they will be scared of you." Said Mr. Noor: "I practice that all the time. I am not scared."
Mr. Noor has been fearless also about unity and purity within the church. He established presbyterian government, with elders, in his own church and lobbies for an inerrant view of Scripture in Cairo's evangelical seminary, where he is chairman of the board. "In seminary we are free to teach polemics, comparative religion classes, and apologetics," he said. Outside seminary walls, those topics are combustible and aren't publicly debated.
Mr. Noor insists he is "completely free to preach with no restrictions." But he usually follows one rule: No attacks on Islam. He is proud to say that Scripture lessons he regularly gives on Egyptian Radio aren't censored. How does one learn so many rules of survival? "It is built in us," he said with a smile.
Christians in Egypt have recently known real seasons of religious unrest. In Jan. 2000, a massacre of Christians in Al Kosheh during Ramadan left 21 Christians dead and around 50 wounded. It destroyed over 100 Coptic homes and businesses.
Most Egyptians believe Mr. Mubarak is doing more to eliminate terrorist cells. During the week before Christmas, Mubarak forces arrested 14 members of Muslim Brotherhood, also known as Al Jihad, as they met in Cairo. Al Jihad orchestrated the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, as well as a number of other assassination attempts against Egyptian government members. It has targeted Christian groups in Egypt, too. A sister organization, Al Gamaa al Islamiya ("Islamic Group") has targeted both Christians and foreign tourists. It was responsible for the attack on Luxor in November 1997 that killed 67 tourists and four Egyptians. Lessening those threats will reduce tensions for minority Christians, too.