Egypt makes Christmas national holiday

? A presidential decree making Christmas — which falls today on Egypt’s Coptic Christian calendar — a national holiday is focusing attention on relations between Christians and Muslims in this overwhelmingly Islamic country.

It is the first time a Christian holiday has been officially recognized in modern Egypt. In the past, only Copts, as Egyptian Christians are known, got Christmas off, while the rest of Egypt worked as usual. Several Islamic holidays have long been national holidays.

Reaction by some Muslims illustrates the sometimes uneasy relationship between the two faiths, according to Copts who say their identity as Egyptians and their contributions are not adequately recognized.

A statement posted on Islammemo, a Web site devoted to conservative Islamic comment, said President Hosni Mubarak made Christmas a holiday because of U.S. pressure to prove Egypt was democratic and respected minorities’ rights.

The Muslim Brotherhood expressed surprise that the whole country was given the day off when, according to prominent Brotherhood member Essam el-Erian, only students had complained about occasionally having to take exams on Christmas.

“It is so strange that the regime is giving the people one more day off, while most government employees are not hard workers,” Erian said.

Christmas became Egypt’s 18th national holiday.

Copts have a long history in Egypt — tradition says St. Mark brought Christianity to Egypt just a few years after the death of Christ.

Orthodox Pope Shenouda III spreads incense inside the Cairo Cathedral during a midnight Mass on Coptic Christmas Day in this Jan. 7, 2001, file photo. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has declared Christmas a national holiday in the overwhelmingly Islamic country.

Copts were once so dominant here that their name is the ancient name for all Egyptians. Now they are estimated at just 10 percent of Egypt’s 68 million people.

Copts survived Roman persecution and Arab conquest, and today are generally free to worship in Egypt.

But they complain of tensions with the Muslim majority and say they face discrimination, particularly in the job market. At times, they face violence.

In its most recent annual review of religious freedoms in Egypt, the U.S. State Department said Christians and Muslims live as neighbors, though religious tensions do flare up and individual acts of prejudice occur.

A Christmas service on Monday in a Cairo cathedral was attended by thousands of Copts. Also attending were Mubarak’s eldest son, Gamal, a handful of government ministers and the U.S. ambassador to Egypt.