President Sisi makes historic visit to Coptic church in Cairo

Egyptian president surprises congregation with speech at Coptic Christmas Eve service

 Egyptian Coptic Pope Tawadros II (left), and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (centre), speak at the Coptic Cathedral of Saint Marcos in Cairo. Photograph: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA

Egyptian Coptic Pope Tawadros II (left), and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (centre), speak at the Coptic Cathedral of Saint Marcos in Cairo. Photograph: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA

 

A sharp freezing wind tugs at the coats and hats of Egyptians braving Cairo’s streets as the country celebrates the Orthodox Coptic Christmas.

Leaves blown from massive ficus trees cover Ismail Mahmoud Street in upscale Zamalek. The grey sky filled with fine desert dust settles on this city of 18 million. Food shops are open, their shelves stocked with fresh dates, strawberries and spicy kumquat. Patisseries are doing brisk business on the last of a string of holidays that began with the western Christmas, the global new year, last weekend’s Mawlid al-Nabi (birthday of the Prophet Muhammad), and Epiphany.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi surprised the congregation of thousands when he turned up at the Coptic Christmas Eve service in Cairo’s St Mark’s cathedral. Standing beside Pope Tawadros II, Sisi gave a short speech calling for peace and tolerance.

“Let no one ask what kind of Egyptian you are. It is not right to call each other anything but Egyptians. We must be Egyptians only.” He wished the congregation and all Egyptians a happy new year. Copts, the largest Christian community in Egypt and the region, comprise about 10 per cent of Egypt’s 83 million population.

The president’s words were greeted with a burst of applause and were welcomed by Copts across the country. He was the first Egyptian president to attend their Christmas Eve mass although previous heads of state, all Muslims, have visited the church.

Political transition

Mohamed Morsi

Many Copts regard Sisi as the figure who prevented Egypt from falling under the domination of the Brotherhood, seen by them as anti-Christian, and are grateful for the police protection now provided for churches.

On Tuesday, two policemen guarding a Coptic church in Minya were shot dead and on New Year’s Day 2011, 23 people were killed at a Coptic church in Alexandria. The secular Free Egyptian Party, founded by Coptic businessman Naguib Sawiris, fully backs Sisi and his evolving political and economic agenda.