On Monday, I posted about a speech Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, recently gave at Al Azhar University, the leading center of Islamic learning in the Sunni world. In his speech, Sisi called for a “religious revolution,” a rethinking of classical Islamic law in order to address the concerns of non-Muslims. I wrote that Sisi’s speech was a hopeful gesture, even a brave one – but that only time will tell how serious Sisi is about honoring religious pluralism.
That’s still what I think – only time will tell. But Sisi deserves credit for another remarkable gesture this week. Yesterday, he paid a surprise Christmas Eve visit to the main Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. (The Coptic Church celebrates Christmas on January 7). According to the government-owned Ahram Online, it was the first such visit by an Egyptian president in history. Past presidents have visited the cathedral, but none has actually attended a Christmas liturgy.
You can see a video of the president’s speech — the liturgy was being covered in full by state TV – here. I can’t speak Arabic, so I don’t know what’s being said, but the scene looks electric. The congregation cheers wildly for Sisi, who himself seems moved. Here’s a report of the visit by an independent website, Mada Masr:
The president made a brief speech while standing next to Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and the highest Coptic authority in Egypt.
“It was necessary for me to come here to wish you a merry Christmas, and I hope I haven’t disturbed your prayers. Throughout the years, Egypt taught the world civilization and humanity, and the world expects a lot from Egypt during the current circumstances,” Sisi said.
“It’s important for the world to see this scene, which reflects true Egyptian unity, and to confirm that we’re all Egyptians, first and foremost. We truly love each other without discrimination, because this is the Egyptian truth,” the president declared.
The Coptic Pope thanked Sisi, and called his visit “a pleasant surprise and a humanitarian gesture.”
The Coptic Church very publicly backed Sisi during the overthrow of the Morsi government in 2013, and Copts have been suffering serious reprisals from the Muslim Brotherhood ever since. In fact, some commentators think Copts are going through the worst persecution in hundreds of years. Christmas liturgies, in Egypt and elsewhere in the Mideast, have become very dangerous for Christians, and some Muslim leaders in Egypt tell followers not even to wish Christians a Merry Christmas. The sense of being under siege no doubt explains the emotion evident in the video. (Some commentators have complained that Sisi interrupted a liturgy, and that the congregation really shouldn’t have gotten so carried away in church, but in the circumstances these things can be excused). What would elsewhere be a routine event – a politician wishing a community well on its holiday – is, in this context, a crucial show of support.
Again, it’s easy for an outsider to miss things, and I wouldn’t be suggesting Sisi for the Nobel Prize just yet. Maybe this is all a show. But, together with his speech at Al Azhar last week, his visit to the cathedral suggests something serious is happening in Egypt. Which leads to a question: why has the US been so cool to Sisi?