On January 6, Christmas Eve in the Gregorian calendar, Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi attended the Coptic Christmas Vigil at St. Marks Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo. By doing so, he became the first Egyptian head of state to attend a Christmas Mass, demonstrating his desire to repair relations between Sunni Muslims like himself, and minority Copts.
While this move is a historic one, it is not atypical of El-Sisi, who has been forming an alliance with Pope Tawadros II, the primate of the Coptic Orthodox Church, since the Pope endorsed his military takeover of the presidency from Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. Under Morsi’s rule, Coptic Christians were continuously marginalized and heavily persecuted; troops under his command did nothing to stop Muslim mobs who, on one occasion, attacked St. Mark’s killing two Christians during the fighting of 2013. This episode was repeated throughout Egypt, with scores of Coption and other Christian churches damaged by explosive attacks. Contrarily to his predecessor, El-Sisi’s appearance and speech at the Mass marks yet another move for unity among Egyptians and helps support and include the often-persecuted Copts in the new regime.
The president arrived just before Mass began, and, standing between the Coptic Pope and several bishops, gave a speech to those present. The crowd gathered responded to his appearance enthusiastically, shouting, “We love you!” as he entered the Cathedral. In his speech, he congratulated the community for their holy celebration, and called for unity between all Egyptians:
“Egypt has brought a humanistic and civilizing message to the world for millennia and we’re here today to confirm that we are capable of doing so again. Yes, a humanistic and civilizing message should once more emanate from Egypt. This is why we mustn’t call ourselves anything other than ‘Egyptians.’ This is what we must be—Egyptians, just Egyptians, Egyptians indeed!”
He then closed by appealing to the similarity of all present as people of faith. The president encouraged the Christians gathered that he supports them and wants to help them to be able to safely and peacefully live more alongside the Muslim majority, which has for so long been hostile to them, “I just want to tell you that Allah willing, Allah willing, we shall build our nation together, accommodate each other, make room for each other, and we shall like each other—love each other, love each other in earnest, so that people will see. Happy New Year!”
Al-Sisi continued on a similar vein in his speech to the Al-Azhar University, the largest Islamic institution of higher learning in the Muslim world, saying that incorrect thinking has lead to the militarization of Islam and ultimately fuels acts of violence. He cautioned the staff of Al-Azhar to stay away from such thinking and to instead focus on the message of brotherhood in Islam.
Immediately after delivering his speech, the president left the Mass, in order to not disrupt the worship. However, his presence was a warm sign of support unmatched by any of the previous Egyptian presidents, who had previously, at most, called the Coptic Pope to wish him a Merry Christmas.