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Celebrating Armenian Christmas
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 09 - 01 - 2013

Armenian Orthodox churches all over the world celebrated Christmas on 6 January, as did the small Armenian community in Egypt that has long played an active role in a country that opened its arms to Armenians fleeing the genocide carried out by the Ottoman Turks towards the beginning of the last century. An Armenian community is believed to have been present in Egypt since the sixth or seventh centuries CE.
The Armenian Orthodox Church on Ramses Street in Cairo had been secured by the police on the morning of 6 January and the outer gate was decorated with Egyptian and Armenian flags, as it is on every religious celebration that takes place within the church.
Inside, the church was filled with around 300 Egyptian-Armenians of all ages. A Christmas tree and crib had been placed in the gardens of the church, and families were having their photographs taken in front of them.
The Christmas mass, conducted by Father Gabriel Sarkissian and Father Hagop Hagopian, accompanied by a number of other clergymen, started at 10am and lasted for three hours. A message from Bishop Ashod Mnatsaganian, primate of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Egypt, was conveyed to the public in Arabic.
In his message, read by community member George Simonian, Bishop Mnatsaganian stated that “we have come today to offer praise to God. Through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the earth has once again been filled with the love of our Lord the Saviour. Although we have faced troubles during the past year, we are optimistic that this year we will continue on our path with the aid of the divine blessings and the efforts of members of our community.”
Bishop Mnatsaganian's message urged the public to pray for the Lord's blessing of Egypt and its people and to strengthen them in realising successful achievements in the love of Jesus Christ.
Representatives of President Mohamed Morsi, the ministers of interior, education and national security, and Pope Tawadros II, leader of the Coptic Church, attended the mass. Also present were Cairo Governor Osama Kamal, the Ambassador of Armenia in Egypt Armen Melkonian, the head of the Al-Waili district, and representatives of several Egyptian churches and Coptic organisations. The mass was broadcast live on Egyptian FM radio.
The Armenian Apostolic Church is the world's oldest national church, and it observes Eastern Orthodoxy, the faith of the Eastern Christian churches. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion in 301 CE.
The Church is the main religious authority for the Armenian orthodox population in the Republic of Armenia, as well as for Armenian orthodox communities worldwide. It is headed by a catholicos, though at present two catholicoi head the Church, Karekin II, supreme patriarch and catholicos of all Armenians, who represents the authority of the Armenian Church and is head of its legislative body, and Aram I, catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia. The Church also has an extensive ecclesiastical hierarchy.
The precise year of Jesus's birth, placed by some historians between seven and two CE, is unknown. By the early-to-mid fourth century, the western Church had placed Christmas on December 25, a date later adopted in the east.
The original date of the celebration in eastern Christianity was 6 January, however, when epiphany is celebrated, and this date is celebrated by the Armenian Apostolic Church and in Armenia itself.
In 2013, there is a difference of 13 days between the modern Gregorian Calendar and the older Julian Calendar. Those who continue to use the Julian Calendar or equivalents thus celebrate Christmas on 25 December and 6 January, translating into 7 and 19 January in the Gregorian Calendar.
Ethiopia, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Serbia, Macedonia and Moldova celebrate Christmas on 7 January. Eastern Orthodox churches in Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Albania, Finland and the Orthodox Church in America celebrate Christmas on 25 December of the revised Julian Calendar.
The day following the birth of Jesus is a memorial day in the Armenian Apostolic Church calendar, when people visit the graves of deceased parents and relatives and pray for their salvation.
While the Armenian community in Egypt has been struggling to cope with the uncertainties of the political situation in the country, the majority of its members refuses to leave the country and is greatly attached to the motherland.
Despite the large number of Armenian churches, schools, benevolent organisations, sporting and cultural clubs and newspapers in Cairo and Alexandria, the number of Armenians in Egypt _ which once stood at 120,000 _ has been decreasing since Nasser's nationalisation in the late 1950s, due to migration to countries like Canada, the US and Australia.
More Armenians may leave Egypt over the years to come, and today there are an estimated 3,000 Armenians living in Egypt.
Bishop Mnatsaganian was appointed primate of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Egypt in 2006. The Armenian Apostolic Church in Cairo on Ramses Street was started in 1924 and the first mass was held there on 12 February 1928.
The church was renovated in 2007 by the Armenian-Egyptian architect Nairy Hampikian.

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