Youssef Hanna didn't tell his mother he was going to celebrate Coptic Christmas at the church of Saint Takla in Alexandria. Almost a week after a deadly attack on the Two Saints Church that left 23 dead, Youssef's mother urged her son to pray at home. Although Youssef is not a regular churchgoer, he insisted on going this time. Alexandria's Coptic Christmas this year is a show of defiance.
Indeed, worshipper turnout wasn't down in Alexandria. On the contrary, the Two Saints Church saw attendees from other neighbourhoods. All churches in Alexandria were surrounded by security. IDs had to be shown and bags were thoroughly inspected.
At Saint Takla's church, the surrounding shops and businesses were closed long before mass. Parking was not allowed in any of the streets leading to the church.
The security measures gave a sense of confidence to Youssef Hanna. "It was really good to find security protecting the church," said Youssef, a young medical student at Alexandria university.
Mass at the Two Saints Church started at 7pm and ended shortly after midnight. Women overwhelmingly wore black. Throughout the celebration there was barely a moment without tears. Pictures of the victims were held up.
Father Makar, the head of Two Saints church, said he disagreed with the wearing of black. "We shouldn't wear black on Christmas. Nor should we wear black for our martyrs, " he said in his sermon.
Father Poles George came from Cairo's Coptic Church to help relieve the pain of the families of victims. He endorsed Father Makar's statement. "I endorse what Father Makar said about black clothes. We should all be happy because Christianity is a call to happiness," said Father Poles.
Father Poles' sermon concentrated on the ways in which spiritual belief could relieve the pain of the families of victims. "Scream, thank your God, be confident in him, and look for what's in heaven," he said. "Only God can hear you and respond to you. People will not help you as much as God does."
Ramy Lakah, Coptic business tycoon and a member of the Wafd Party, attended the mass. "I'm here on behalf of the Wafd Party to celebrate Christmas. The atmosphere is one of happiness mixed with deep sadness," Lakah told reporters.
In a show of solidarity, tens of Muslims held candlelight vigils outside the Two Saints church. "We wanted to get inside the church and light candles to mourn the martyrs," said Mohamed Fawzy, a Muslim. "When we were turned away by security we lit candles in the square next to the church, " he added.
Malakah Mohamed, an old Muslim woman who lit a candle and stood outside the church, shared Fawzy's sentiments, saying: "I'm really sad for what happened. This should have never occurred. [Those responsible] won't escape God's punishment."
”Nothing can keep us away from our church and our God. The church was packed. What happened a week ago made a lot of people closer to God,” said Mena George, a university student who attended the mass.