Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Significant gestures

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to the Coptic Cathedral to mark the Eastern Christmas cements the already strong alliance with Egypt’s Christian minority, writes Khaled Dawoud

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 6 January, only hours after returning from a two-day visit to Kuwait, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi became the first Egyptian president to attend a mass celebrating Christmas.

His visit to the headquarters of the Coptic Orthodox Church further cements the alliance between the president and Egypt’s ten million Christians, many of whom see Al-Sisi as their saviour after he ended the sectarian rule of former president Mohamed Morsi.

Pope Tawadros II was among the handful of figures who attended the 3 July 2013 announcement of a political roadmap by Al-Sisi, then the defence minister, following Morsi’s removal. He stood alongside Ahmed Al-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar, Mohamed Al-Baradie, leader of the National Salvation Front, Galal Morra, secretary-general of the Salafist Al-Nour Party and senior military leaders.

Morsi’s year in office as Egypt’s first democratically elected president saw a sharp deterioration in relations with Coptic Christians. Mistrust between the two sides was compounded by statements made by the Muslim Brotherhood that cast doubts over the group’s commitment to ensuring Christians enjoyed equal rights with Muslims. In April 1997, Mustafa Mashhour, the Brotherhood’s supreme guide, argued that Christians should be excluded from the army and pay jizya, a special tax, instead.

Protests broke out against Morsi following his announcement of a constitutional declaration in December 2012 placing presidential decisions beyond legal challenge. Khairat Al-Shater, the Brotherhood’s deputy supreme guide, later held a news conference at which he claimed that the majority of protesters surrounding the Ittihadiya Presidential Palace were Christians.

Incendiary speeches denouncing Pope Tawadros II and Egypt’s Christians for their support of the “military coup” were a regular feature of the 48-day sit-ins Brotherhood supporters held in Rabaa and Nahda to protest Morsi’s removal. Within 24 hours of Morsi’s ouster, 70 churches were attacked across Egypt.

Morsi conspicuously failed to offer Christians Christmas greetings during his year in office. Instead, Brotherhood leaders fanned a media debate over whether it was permissible for Muslims to congratulate Christians over the birth of Jesus. Salafist Al-Nour party leader Yasser Borhami, who now supports Al-Sisi, claimed that extending Christmas greetings to Christians was contrary to Islamic teachings because it implied a recognition of their religion.

It is the steady rise of such extremist ideas over the last few decades that makes Al-Sisi’s visit to the Coptic Cathedral on 6 January a significant event. Gamal Abdel-Nasser enjoyed positive relations with Pope Kirolos, the then leader of the Coptic Church, and in 1965 personally laid the foundation stone for the current cathedral, but he never attended a Christmas mass.

Relations with the church soured under Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, who courted Islamist groups as a counterweight to his leftist and nationalist opponents. During his only visit to the Coptic Cathedral in 1977, Sadat performed Islamic prayers inside the church. Sadat, who was fond of referring to himself as “the Muslim leader of a Muslim country,” clashed openly with Pope Shenouda III when the latter failed to offer support for Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and the subsequent signing of a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

Shortly before his assassination in October 1981, Sadat placed Pope Shenouda under house arrest in a monastery in Alexandria.

President Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years in office saw attempts to improve relations with Egypt’s Christians. Mubarak visited the Coptic Cathedral twice, offering condolences over the death of two prominent Christian figures, and regularly met with Pope Shenouda III. But Christians continued to complain about the difficulties of building or repairing churches and their exclusion from senior government, army and police posts.

Al-Sisi, who was accompanied by his newly appointed intelligence chief, Khaled Fawzy, was received warmly by worshippers attending mass at the cathedral. He entered through a side door to be greeted with chants of “We love you Al-Sisi” and “Muslims and Christians are one hand.” He delivered a short speech congratulating attendees on the birth of Jesus.

Al-Sisi remained in the cathedral for little more than 10 minutes. His brief visit was hailed by both Copts and secularists. In the two days following the president’s appearance on Christmas Eve, a host of senior government officials followed in his footsteps to offer their own Christmas greetings to Pope Tawadros II.

Following Al-Sisi’s visit to the cathedral, Bishop Paula of Tanta told satellite television station Sada Al-Balad, “As the angels appeared suddenly to mark the arrival of Jesus Christ we saw Jesus inside the Cathedral on the anniversary of his birth following the president’s visit.” He added that Al-Sisi “was wise not to announce his visit in advance since to do so would have caused security problems and distracted worshippers from their prayers.”

Mohamed Abul-Ghar, leader of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, praised Al-Sisi’s visit to the cathedral, but said that more was needed to show goodwill towards Christians.

“We need to take other steps to assure that Christians citizens enjoy full rights,” he said. “They must include approving a new law on building churches and the revision of educational curricula in a way that promotes equal citizenship.”

Pope Tawadros has regularly expressed support for Al-Sisi, claiming on more than one occasion that the president saved Egypt from civil war.

In a recent interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, Tawadros called for the release of former president Mubarak, angering revolutionary youth groups. His predecessor, Pope Shenouda, famously advised young Copts to avoid anti-Mubarak protests. The church, it seems, does not view revolutionary change as a priority.

In his El Mundo interview, Tawadros echoed statements made by Al-Sisi during his election campaign seven months ago. “Egypt,” he said, “needs at least 20 years to reach true democracy because building democracy comes from the bottom to the top through small doses that start in the classroom.”

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