CAIRO — Egypt's pope urged his congregants to be joyful and "not be afraid" in his Mass for Coptic Christmas, trying to reassure a community feeling anxious about the rise of Islamists to power here.
Pope Tawadros II also prayed for peace and stability for Egypt when he led his first Christmas Midnight Mass late Sunday night. He asked God to guide Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his government to lead "wisely."
Tawadros was elected in November to replace longtime Pope Shenouda III, who died in March after 40 years as leader of the ancient church. His prayers reflected the concerns of the Coptic Christians, who represent about 10 percent of Egypt's 85 million people. Many are feeling unsettled under the country's first Islamist president and a newly passed constitution that could open the way for stricter Islamic law in Egypt.
Even before the rise of Islamists to power, the Christian minority had long complained of discrimination by the state and the Muslim majority. But over the two years since Egypt's uprising against authoritarian rule, the community has grown more concerned about its future as Islamist political forces, long repressed under the previous autocratic regime, grew more assertive.
"Don't be afraid," Tawadros said in his midnight sermon, selecting messages from the Bible to reassure his congregation. "Even if humans feel lots of fear, remember God will take care of you. This is a collective message because fear is contagious. ... This is a message of reassurance."
Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on Monday according to a different calendar than Roman Catholics and Protestants use.
Tawadros also appealed for unity, urging Morsi and his government to act with "wisdom."
"We pray for this beloved country, Egypt, for God to protect her safety, security, stability; to protect her unity and more so, her image," Tawadros said.
"We don't pray for the land. We pray for the humans, all humans ... starting with the president, Mohammed Morsi, and all officials, and for God to give everyone wisdom and responsibility to manage the affairs of this country and its people in true Egyptian spirit."
With the prospect of Egypt taking a turn toward a more religious, Islamic state, some Copts are reportedly considering leaving the country.
Some say they are turning to God and to prayers in these uncertain times.
But others are feeling newly emboldened as part of a larger transition in Egypt. Copts have grown more vocal in their demands for civil and political rights and have found solace in aligning themselves with moderate Muslims and secular Egyptians who also fear the rise of Islamic power.
After a spate of violent attacks against Christians in the lead up to the election of Morsi, members of the community and experts say Christians will be more concerned about the rise of radical Islam and further marginalization of minorities.
The struggle over the new constitution deeply polarized the country, with many arguing the charter undermined the rights of minorities and women and failed to uphold freedom of expression. Representatives of Christians, liberals and secular Egyptians walked out of the committee drafting the charter at the last minute and campaigned against it in a referendum.
Tawadros had said in earlier remarks that an overtly religious charter would not be acceptable to many Egyptians. But the document passed in last month's referendum with a 64 percent yes in low turnout of nearly 33 percent of eligible voters.
Now, Egyptians are watching for new legislation based on the constitution that could tilt Egypt toward Islam.
Morsi appointed nearly a dozen Christians to the Islamist-dominated parliament which is currently seeking to translate some articles of the charter into legislation. But the liberal opposition is boycotting parliament, which has been actively campaigning against the charter.
New parliamentary elections expected in the next few months are already under discussion in the legislature and some members are suggesting setting a quota for Christians to improve their representation in the upcoming chamber.
Adel Sidhom, a 52-year old engineer, said the future of Copts in the country is unclear, accusing the authorities of overlooking their concerns.
"Are we going to live peacefully as we used to? Or will they treat us differently? Because apparently the authority is taking sides," he said. "The fact that the Coptic Church didn't participate in the constitution, and the fact that the authority just neglected its presence, is enough to make me worry."