Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1425, (10 - 16 January 2019)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1425, (10 - 16 January 2019)

Ahram Weekly

United in the New Capital

Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II exchanged hopes for peace and pride at the inauguration of the New Administrative Capital’s mosque and cathedral this week, writes Ahmed Eleiba


Al-Fattah Al-Alim Mosque
Al-Fattah Al-Alim Mosque

At the doors of the Al-Fattah Al-Alim Mosque and the Cathedral of the Nativity in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II exchanged expressions of good will and brotherly love this week.

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi inaugurated the two houses of worship on 6 January, before he attended the Christmas mass at the cathedral.

Al-Tayeb said it was a “momentous” event that marked “the first time in history that a mosque and a cathedral have been built and inaugurated at the same time in Egypt”. To epitomise that spirit of brotherhood, the Muslim call to evening prayer sounded out together with the chimes of church bells at the ceremony on 6 January.

The event brought to mind other historic scenes of unity and shared identity for many. Perhaps the most salient occurred a century ago, during the 1919 Revolution against the British occupation, when the then sheikh of Al-Azhar, Mohamed Abdel-Latif Draz, and Coptic archbishop Sergius exchanged sermons from their pulpits.

The leaders of the revolution dubbed the archbishop “the preacher of the revolution”. He famously said that “the nation knows not Muslim or Copt. They are freedom fighters with no distinction between the white and black turbans” worn by members of the different religions.

Such expressions of unity and brotherhood have occurred again and again when the country has been under threat. One of the most poignant occurred following the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood rule during the 30 June Revolution. In the aftermath of a rampage by Islamist extremists who set fire to 40 churches around the country, Coptic Pope Tawadros II said that “if you burn the churches, we’ll pray in the mosques.”

There were also memories of the ceremony to lay the cornerstone of St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbasiya on the 13th anniversary of the 1952 Revolution attended by former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Coptic pope Cyril VI.

Nasser announced that the government would contribute half the costs of the construction, and state-run construction companies were engaged for the purpose. Nasser’s children were among the first to make private donations for the construction of the cathedral.

On the present occasion, too, President Al-Sisi was the first to make personal donations for the construction of both the new cathedral and the new mosque in the New Administrative Capital, as Tawadros mentioned in his speech during the inauguration of the Al-Fattah Al-Alim Mosque.

President Al-Sisi also set the tradition of making regular visits to the Coptic Cathedral after coming to office. He was the first Egyptian president to attend a mass and the first to pay his respects annually since January 2015.

He has visited the cathedral seven times, five to offer his congratulations on Christian holy days and twice to offer his condolences. In speeches during the five happy occasions, he consistently underscored the unity of the Egyptian nation and rejected the classification of its citizens on a religious basis.

He has often said that Egypt, through its unity, continues to give the world lessons in civilisation and that, since God created all creatures differently, differences in faith were one of His laws on earth. He has repeatedly called for efforts to bolster the culture of mutual coexistence and tolerance that is ingrained in the Egyptian nation.

On the present occasion, President Al-Sisi fulfilled two promises. The first, given in 2016, was to repair churches damaged following the 30 June Revolution. The second, given in 2017, was to build a new cathedral in the New Administrative Capital.

Sadly, an occasion of mourning cast a shadow over this year’s Christmas festivities. On 5 January, police major Mustafa Ebeid, an explosives expert, lost his life while trying to defuse a bomb that had been planted near a mosque in Nasr City in a manner meant to target a neighbouring church.

Religious figures offered their condolences for the officer who had sacrificed his life for the sake of others, and President Al-Sisi opened his speech with a prayer for the “martyrs who have sacrificed their lives for the nation”.

The government and the people worked together to build the two edifices. The Armed Forces Engineering Authority, the Arab Contractors Company and a number of architectural firms took part in the construction. The people contributed by means of personal donations to the Tahya Misr Fund.

The largest mosque in Egypt and the largest cathedral in the Middle East also stand as testimony to the government’s determination to achieve results, while the scale of these projects and their simultaneous completion reflect its principle of non-discrimination between houses of worship.

As for the many architects and engineers who were involved in the two projects, their attendance at the inaugural ceremonies was a manifestation of the pride that they and the rest of the Egyptian people rightfully take in these monuments, which blend modern design concepts with traditional religious architectural elements passed down across the millennia from generation to generation.

The newly inaugurated mosque and cathedral are the first major edifices to have been constructed and put into operation in the New Administrative Capital. This, too, has important ramifications since building houses of worship is a sign of optimism.

It is an affirmation that Egypt is the cradle of civilisation, the cradle of the divine faiths, and the cradle of development that begins with the construction of spiritual edifices that bring people together.

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