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Germany

Coptic Christmas Masses go ahead under specter of Islamist threats

Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on Friday, but this year's liturgies and feasts will be held under the threat of calls by Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda to carry out attacks on Coptic churches in Europe.

Father Pigol Bassili

Father Bassili said Christmas celebrations would go ahead

As they were getting ready for Christmas at St Mark's Coptic Church in Frankfurt, which is home to around 1,000 Copts, dozens of the faithful were busy setting up seating, lighting and sound systems for the annual celebrations.

Deacon Michele Riad stands in a corner with three other men practicing Coptic hymns to be sung at the Christmas Mass, which is marked on January 7, as per the Coptic calendar.

The event is usually celebrated with as much joy as Protestant or Roman Catholic Christmas, but congregation members admitted this year would be a more measured affair in the wake of a bombing at a Coptic Mass in Alexandria, Egypt, that killed 23 people on New Year's Day.

Egyptian Coptic Christians attend morning mass inside the Saints Church in Alexandria

Grieving Copts in Egypt have been mourning the deadly bombings in Alexandria

The attack hit many in the Frankfurt community of Egyptian Germans hard and was followed by an e-mail written by Islamic fundamentalists directly threatening Coptic churches in Europe, including the Frankfurt church, which serves Germany's largest Coptic community.

Deacon Riad steps away from hymn practice to say that the Internet message pushed many German Copts to fear for their safety.

"[What's] very terrifying is that the Coptic children here see it on TV, and they ask their parents, 'why, why, why?'" he says.

Cautious but faithful

Feeling insecure, the congregation asked police to provide a security detail for Christmas Masses to be held on Thursday night and Friday.

The police say they're taking the threat seriously and would carry out extra patrols in the vicinity of the church. They also say they'll be in close contact with church members over the weekend to ensure all goes according to plan.

Deacon Michele Riad and congregation members practice a Christmas hymn

Deacon Michele Riad (center) says Copts are grateful for support from German society

Church member Vert Bassili-Matta says the threat will not stop the community from marking Christmas.

"Danger is everywhere and at any time," she says. "It could be that something will happen, but this will not [stop us from coming] to church. We will come, we will celebrate our Christmas, and we trust in God that he will save us."

Father Abuna Pigol Bassili, who leads the Frankfurt congregation, says many in Germany's Coptic community are on edge but have faith that Christmas will proceed without incident.

"In the community here, it is different from one person to another. Some people, they are afraid, some others, they say it is usual to see something like that. But we are in the hands of God," he says.

Community support

One thing that has given those in the local Coptic community cause for optimism, Deacon Riad says, has been the reaction from within Germany.

The Coptic bible

The Coptic Bible is written in Coptic, which uses the ancient Greek alphabet

"We could not be more grateful for the reaction of German society, German politics and German police. We are amazed by the reaction here," he says. "We are a very small congregation, we are very well integrated in German lifestyle, but this focus on the Coptic Church in Frankfurt has never happened before."

Riad says Copts in Europe have been asked by the Coptic pope, Shenouda III, to hold their annual Christmas liturgy as usual. But he adds that, in light of the threat and the Alexandria bombing, celebrations afterwards may not go ahead.

The Coptic churches around Germany were, however, planning memorial services this weekend for the victims of the Egypt attack. Riad said representatives from the wider Christian community and the Central Council of Muslims in Germany would attend.

Author: Darren Mara, Frankfurt
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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