Egyptian Leader Visits Coptic Christmas Eve Service

Egyptian Leader Visits Coptic Christmas Eve Service

By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK and MERNA THOMASJAN. 6, 2015

CAIRO — President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Tuesday visited the main Coptic Christian cathedral during its Christmas Eve Mass, and the Egyptian state news media declared him the first Egyptian president to attend such a service.

“Let no one say, ‘What kind of Egyptian are you?’ ” Mr. Sisi told the thousands of worshipers, declaring that Egypt would rise above centuries of tensions between Muslims and Christians. “It is not right to call each other anything but ‘the Egyptians.’ We must only be Egyptians!”

The cathedral erupted in applause, and Copts, who make up about 10 percent of the roughly 85 million Egyptians, heralded Mr. Sisi’s appearance there as a milestone. It was also the latest demonstration of the increasingly tight alliance between Mr. Sisi, who led the military ouster of the Islamist president in 2013, and the Coptic Pope Tawadros II, a supporter of the military takeover who has enthusiastically endorsed the new government.

The Coptic Church celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7 of the Western calendar, following an older system that the Roman Catholic Church moved away from with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582.

Many Egyptian Copts have long seen the conspicuous absence of Egypt’s presidents, all Muslims, from the Christmas celebration as a capitulation to the Muslim majority’s sectarian suspicions and animosities. Some ultraconservative Muslim clerics even urge their followers to avoid wishing a merry Christmas to Christian neighbors, much less attending worship in a church, and many Muslim politicians prefer to sidestep the issue.

Previous Egyptian presidents — including both Hosni Mubarak, the strongman whose three decades in power ended with the uprising in 2011, and Mohamed Morsi, the Islamist removed in the summer of 2013 after one year in office — have wished the pope a merry Christmas over the telephone but sent only a representative to attend the service.

Many Copts, however, were alarmed by Islamist successes in Egypt’s free elections after the 2011 uprising, fearing new discrimination or marginalization, and many applauded Mr. Sisi for leading the military takeover.

Some Coptic activists now complain that his government has failed to curb the biases in government and law enforcement, such as criminal prosecutions of Christians for blasphemy or cumbersome permitting procedures that restrict the building of churches.

But many Copts still regard Mr. Sisi as a national savior. And Pope Tawadros II has been a vocal supporter of Mr. Sisi’s heavy-handed drive for security and stability, recently declaring that the security of the Egyptian state was even more necessary than the church itself. In the last two weeks, Pope Tawadros has further raised eyebrows by urging Christians not to dwell on the killings of 28 primarily Coptic demonstrators by troops in October 2011, during a period of military rule. He suggested implausibly that the mass killing had in fact been a plot perpetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

At the service Tuesday night, the pope beamed at Mr. Sisi’s unannounced visit. In footage broadcast on Egyptian television, Mr. Sisi seemed to appear by surprise, wearing a red tie and dark suit and surrounded by burly bodyguards. Standing by the pope’s side, the president spoke without notes, blinking several times as though his eyes were moist. The crowd chanted in adulation.

“I don’t want His Holiness the pope to get upset this way!” Mr. Sisi joked at one point, eliciting chuckles from Tawadros and a friendly shoulder pat from a bishop nearby.

“We will love each other for real, so that people may see,” Mr. Sisi declared. “A happy year for you and all Egyptians!”

Then, trailed by his bodyguards, Mr. Sisi left before the religious service got underway.

A version of this article appears in print on January 7, 2015, on page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Egyptian Leader Visits Coptic Christmas Eve Service. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe