A Christmas Eve Surprise

On January 6, as Egypt’s Coptic Christian community celebrated Christmas Eve at St. Mark Cathedral in Cairo, and while the Pope and other clergy were chanting the liturgy, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arrived to congratulate the community. This was a very joyful surprise to me and the thousands of Christians who had gathered in the cathedral. The crowds responded to the surprise visit with joyful cheers. They had never expected the president to attend the Christmas celebration. In fact, this was the first visit in history of an Egyptian president to the cathedral during a service.

President Sisi, who had returned from Kuwait just two hours earlier, had decided to greet Christians as they were celebrating Christmas Eve. By this surprise visit, he also sent a message to all Egyptians, Christians and Muslims, that he is determined to achieve equality between all religious communities in Egypt. The gesture demonstrated brilliantly that President Sisi acts on his word without hesitation or fear of criticism from extremists, and set a new precedent for Muslim leaders in the Middle East of respect and care for all religious communities. The visit brought new hope and encouragement to Christians after decades of marginalization.

During the visit, President Sisi gave Christmas wishes to the Pope and the crowds. He also said that Egyptians must love one another with sincere hearts. “In the past,” he added, “we made a great civilization, and together we are capable of resuming that role. We can teach the world about the spirit of love and tolerance.” The crowds responded with loud shouts: “we are one hand. We love you, Sisi.”

The visit lasted for a few minutes; however, I think it will have a much longer and greater impact on the national unity of the people of Egypt. A week before this visit, the President gave a strong speech at the celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, urging Muslim leaders to start a revolution against extremist Islamic thinking that has damaged the reputation of Islam and led to sectarian violence in Egypt and many parts of the world. I see the surprise visit to the cathedral as a practical action coming from the President’s conviction that followers of different religions should live together in peace.

May the Lord bless you!

+Mouneer

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