At the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, the head of Egypt’s Islamic Al-Azhar university and the Coptic pope flanked Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as he announced the monumental news. Violence against Christians has continued at the hands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, but 2014 begins with new hope for Christians in Egypt: a new constitution is coming up for a vote that would allow Christians to build churches without clearance from the president, the Muslim Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist organization, and the government has vowed to do a better job of protecting Copts from violence. And then there’s this:
Egypt’s interim president on Sunday made a rare visit to the Coptic pope ahead of this week’s Orthodox Christmas celebrations, underlining efforts by the military-backed government to project an image of inclusion ahead of a crucial referendum later this month.
The highly symbolic visit to Pope Tawadros II at the papal seat at Cairo’s St. Mark’s Cathedral by Adly Mansour was the first such visit since socialist leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser attended the cathedral’s consecration ceremony more than 40 years ago.
Mansour’s visit underlined the secular outlook of the military-installed government and signals a dramatic departure from the sectarian rhetoric of some of the more radical allies of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi during his one year in power and the tension and distrust that defined their relations with Christians.
St. Mark’s Cathedral was attacked by a mob in April last year, an event that heightened Christians’ concern over Morsi’s rule and laid bare their vulnerability. Morsi quickly condemned the violence, saying attacking the cathedral was like attacking him personally. But, in an unprecedented direct criticism, Pope Tawadros accused him of failing to protect the cathedral. It was the first ever attack on the papal seat of the Egyptian Orthodox church.
And as the Obama administration keeps criticizing defense minister el-Sisi for not being inclusive of the Muslim Brotherhood, polling shows that if he chooses to run for president this spring he’d win in a walk.
Check out Pope Tawadros mentioning el-Sisi’s name at Mass — the ovation from the congregation is a reaction President Obama could only hope for:
El-Sisi, a Sunni Muslim, sent a holiday message to the pope and Egypt’s Christians hailing the birth of Christ as “the rebirth of peace on Earth and love between people.”
“I gladly send you and all the Coptic bothers the sincerest greetings on the occasion celebrating the glorious birth of Jesus Christ, wishing you plenty of health and happiness,” read el-Sisi’s letter.
The less sincere holiday greeting came from… you know who:
— Ikhwanweb (@Ikhwanweb) January 7, 2014
.@ikhwanweb kinda hypocritical to wish that , and then not join in the celebrations.The people want evidence of your ‘sincerity’
— Shami Witness (@ShamiWitness) January 7, 2014
— المرشدة Emm (@em_ess) January 7, 2014
El-Sisi promised extra security around churches for Christmas, and so far there have been no attacks and the pews have been packed. El-Sisi reportedly skipped the cathedral Mass because he didn’t want to make the church a target for terrorists with his presence there.
Obama issued a statement to mark Coptic Christmas, saying “we reaffirm the commitment of the United States to work for the protection of Christians and other people of faith in Egypt and around the world.”
“The freedom to practice our faiths is critical to stable, pluralistic, and thriving societies, and the United States will continue to be vigilant in its work to protect that freedom,” he said.