When is a surprise not a surprise? Surely, when you suspect it might happen.
Even though many Copts were asking themselves if President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi would again this year wish them a Happy Christmas by dropping in at St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral during Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, no one was sure the President would do it. The President himself had been silent on the matter; he didn’t even wish Pope Tawadros II a Happy Christmas the day before.
So when President Sisi did show up at the Cathedral as Midnight Mass was beginning, it was again a happy ‘surprise’. The President, surrounded by his bodyguards, was ushered into the cathedral through the side door. He headed straight towards Pope Tawadros who stood in front of the sanctuary. The congregation broke into a non-stop jubilant applause, to the point that an obviously joyful President Sisi laughed: “Well, go on clapping; no need for me to say anything!” Even this did not make the applause wane. When it finally did, then came the real surprise.
President Sisi started by expressing his warmest Christmas wishes, stressing that as Egyptians “we all—Muslims and Christians—love and care for one another; we have done so throughout the ages, must do so, and will always continue to do so. Nothing can tear us apart,” he insisted.
The President recalled the infamous attacks by the Islamist Muslim Brothers (MB) and their supporters against the Copts on 14 August 2013, the day when the five-week-long violent Islamist sit-in that had formed in the wake of the downfall of the post-Arab Spring Islamist rule two months earlier was dispersed by the police. In retaliation, and in what was very obviously a pre-planned response should the sit-in be dispersed, the MB and their supporters launched a nationwide attack against Copts. They assaulted, looted, and torched some 100 churches and Christian institutions such as community service centres, schools, and even an orphanage, as well as some 150 homes, businesses, property, or fields owned by Copts.
For all the misfortune that befell the Copts then, President Sisi offered a sincere apology on Christmas Eve. He expressed his deep appreciation of the stance the Copts adopted vis-à-vis the atrocious widespread attack against them. At the time, not a single Coptic voice was raised in complaint or criticism; the Copts instinctively realised that it was not them but Egypt that was being targeted, that they were being used as pawns whose grief would cause unrest in the land. So the Copts did nothing; literally, nothing. They licked their wounds and refused to let their agony be used to destabilise Egypt which could not then afford any unrest.
…And a promise
Back in 2012, the Armed Forces promised to repair and restore the ruined churches and buildings, but has so far been able to do so in only a handful of cases. Yet the Copts in their wide majority again did not complain. As one carpenter in his late forties who lives in an overpopulated area in Giza told Watani: “How can I ask my brother who owes me a debt of a few thousand Pounds to pay me back when this brother owes a stranger another debt of a hundred thousand? I can only wait till he can pay me.” The opinion expressed what many Copts felt, even though some Coptic activists criticised the army for not living up to its promise.
On Christmas Eve 2016, President Sisi promised—this time it was a promise he personally pledged to honour—that the Armed Forces would do all the repairs and restorations during 2016. “It’s not a favour,” he said. “We owe this to you.”
The President’s sincerity and spontaneity came through very clearly; Copts in the cathedral and in front of their TV screens or radios could palpably feel it. They felt redeemed and elated. It was historically unprecedented for an Egyptian head of State to visit a church during Holy Mass, let alone to ever apologise to Copts or express appreciation of them in public. As President Sisi turned to leave, he did not go out the way he came in; he insisted on walking the main aisle amid the congregation to the main door of the cathedral. Amid deafening applause and with a beaming Pope Tawadros standing back, men and women stretched their hands for a handshake with the President or offered him flowers.
Peace and love
A post by prominent Copt Magdy Ishaq, a psychiatrist and an outstanding preacher especially popular with young people, went viral on social media.
“This was the second unexpected visit by President Sisi to St Mark’s during Midnight Mass. Some thought that last year’s was an isolated event that would not recur, but the President has now proved it is a basic attitude of his.
“No Egyptian head of State ever visited a church during Mass. Even when in 1968 President Gamal Abdel-Nasser visited the cathedral together with the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassi, it was not during Mass or worship.
“President Sisi is the first Egyptian head of State to publicly address Copts with palpably warm, sincere sentiments from inside a church.
“He is the first Egyptian head of State to officially apologise to the Coptic people and the Pope for atrocities committed against them, publicly express his appreciation of their patriotic stance, and promise to remedy the wrongdoing.
“He is the first Egyptian head of State to publicly honour the right to differ; he earlier demanded a change in the Islamic religious address that endorses extremist thought. He defied the extremist Salafi call to refrain from wishing Christians a Happy Christmas [https://en.wataninet.com/features/islamisation/salafis-vote-no-for-christmas-others-vote-yes/15430/]; he went in person to church during Mass to wish them well.
“The Copts responded with a torrent of love well-earned by one who calls for peace and love. Time is needed to root these concepts as a basis for coexistence among different people; only then will they live together in happiness. It has already begun; moderate Muslim Egyptians share our elation at the message President Sisi sent from St Mark’s on Christmas Eve.
“Time will pass, and our Egypt will metamorphose into a land of peace and love for all who live there.”
13 January 2016
Tomorrow, Thursday, a newly restored church of Mar-Girgis and Abu-Seifein in Belhassa, Minya, will be handed over by the Armed Forces to the Coptic Church