In what has become a tradition since he became President of Egypt in June 2014, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi made a surprise entry into St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassiya, Cairo, on Christmas Eve to wish the Copts a Happy Nativity Feast. Copts celebrate Christmas on the 29th of the Coptic [Egyptian] month of Kiahk, which coincides with 7 January. Pope Tawadros II was in his clerical vestments and was preparing to enter the cathedral to preside over Midnight Mass when President Sisi arrived. He welcomed the President and, to the joyful chiming of the cathedral bells, led him in. The congregation was thrilled and elated to see the President and Pope side by side as they stepped into the church. The President joined the Pope down the aisle in the papal procession led by the deacons and bishops. Meanwhile the deacon choir chanted to the cymbals and triangle the traditional Ep Oro (Oh Prince of Peace) and Ek Esmararot (Blessed) melodies, chants that go back to ancient Egypt and were used to accompany the pharaoh’s procession as he entered the temple or returned victorious from war. As the two leaders walked from the church door to the sanctuary up front, the congregation broke into frenzied applause. The men clapped and cheered and the women ululated in joy. They picked up the white and red bunches of flower that decorated the aisle and presented them to President Sisi. A little girl stretched her hand with a long thread of flowers to the President; the bodyguards tried to dissuade her but he insisted on accepting them with a beaming smile. He hung them around his collar and gave the girl a kiss on her forehead.
Biggest church and mosque ever
The visit was no ‘surprise’ in the sense that it was not unexpected, but the surprise came in the word said by President Sisi. After the usual good wishes to the Copts and the Pope, he made two announcements. In the first, he apologised to the Copts that it had taken the State and the Armed Forces some three years to finally restore the 84 churches and Christian establishments that had been attacked and ruined by the Muslim Brothers on 14 August 2013. [A massive 33-million strong Egyptian revolution had erupted on 30 June 2013 against the Islamist MB regime that was then ruling Egypt in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring; the army stepped in to avert the threat of civil war, and the MB regime was toppled.] At St Mark’s, the President said that all 84 churches and Christian establishments were restored, except for the icons in two churches—one in Minya and one in Arish—that were still under expert restoration.
President Sisi said that he upheld plurality and diversity, which he saw as a manifestation of God’s will. In confirmation, he said, he was then and there announcing that Egypt’s new capital, which is now under construction and is scheduled for opening next year, would house the biggest church ever in Egypt as well as the biggest mosque. He said he was already making the first contribution, a EGP100,000 donation, towards the realisation of that project which would work to celebrate diversity and plurality.
“I wish to say that Egypt will again return to her historic grandeur,” the President said. “I am certain of that because we work faithfully and honourably to bring about peace, love, and prosperity to all. This is in line with what God wishes us to do, so I am certain it will come about.”
Finally, President Sisi lifted his voice and heart in prayer for Egypt. “I now stand in a house of God,” he said. “I pray that God preserves Egypt and takes care of her.” He then left amid a round of resounding applause, and Midnight Mass began.
8 January 2017