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. 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.
During an Islamic insurrection in Egypt in the early 1990s, Copts were occasionally attacked by Muslim militants. In 2000, the deadliest Christian-Muslim clashes in years killed 23 people, all but two of them Copts, touched off by an argument between a Coptic merchant and a Muslim shopper in the southern village of el-Kusheh.
Last year, 11 people were injured and 50 were arrested after brawls broke out in a southern village after an argument over whether a church's bells tolled too loudly. Human rights groups and the U.S. State Department have noted the lack of attention paid to Coptic history in Egypt's schools, the scant number of Copts in high government posts and scattered reports of forced conversion to Islam and attacks on Copts by Muslim militants. But they say there is little evidence of systematic government discrimination or widespread hatred of Copts among Muslims.
While marking Christmas is perhaps the most dramatic move, it is not the first time Mubarak has addressed the concerns of Copts. Last year, Mubarak made it easier for Copts to renovate churches by allowing his aides to grant permission for the work. In the past, only the president could grant such permission, creating long delays. For the last two years, state television has broadcast Coptic Christmas and Easter services.
Still, Milad Hana, a Coptic writer, said such steps "do not touch the core Copt demands," including teaching more Coptic history in state schools.
Two years ago, an independent think tank run by human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim developed new material on Coptic history for schools, but Coptic Bishop Pisenti said "very few chapters were added to the curricula." Ibrahim's outspokenness about Copts was cited when he was convicted last year of tarnishing Egypt's image, reflecting sensitivity about charges Copts are treated unfairly.
Copts also demand more political representation. Copts won three of 454 seats in parliament during 2000 elections and a fourth was appointed by Mubarak. Politicians argue they can do little if voters won't elect Copts, but Hana said Mubarak could appoint more Copts to executive positions.
Nabil Abdel Fatah, a Muslim who edits an independent review of religious affairs, said the government is working on behalf of Copts. He cited "a step-by-step policy, begun first by giving space to Coptic writers in opinion pages in semi-governmental newspapers, assigning Coptic figures to ministerial positions, and finally with the national holiday."