Egypt's Sisi First President ever to Attend Coptic Christmas Mass

In a historic event that created quite a commotion in Cairo, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made an unannounced appearance at the Coptic Cathedral where Christmas Eve Mass was being celebrated by the Egyptian Pope Tawadros II. The Coptic Church celebrates Christmas on 7 January because of its use of the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian. It was the first time ever that an Egyptian President was honoring a Coptic Christmas celebration with his presence.

Though famed President Gamal Abdel Nasser laid the cornerstone of the cathedral, he did not attend mass -- a clear signal that Coptic Christianity was not to be wholly honored. Likewise, President Mubarak was twice made by protocol to attend a funeral there, but not a mass. Christmas celebrations at the cathedral were traditionally attended by government officials at the minister level.

Further emphasizing his recent declaration that Islam must reform itself, Sisi shortened his visit to Kuwait to be able to come and congratulate the Coptic community. He went straight from the airport to Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, arrived as service had just begun, and apologized for interrupting the mass. The ceremony was live streamed on Egyptian State TV, and showed him being greeted by a jubilant congregation.

His presence was greatly appreciated, especially in light of the recent persecution of Copts at the hands of radical Muslims. As an outgrowth of the unfortunately named “Arab Spring”, Churches and Christian sites have come under attack since the revolution that ousted Mubarak in 2011. Even after Morsi was deposed in July 2013, a wave of violence spread across Egypt, in particular when the dispersal of two pro-Morsi protest camps was followed by the torching of dozens of churches and attacks on Christian property.

El-Sisi led the massive popular mobilization against the ruling Muslim Brotherhood on 30 June 2013. After winning a landslide victory in the subsequent presidential elections, he positioned himself as the uniter of the Egyptian people across religious divides. With his recent statement in favor of a renewed vision of Islam, made on 1 January 2015 before an important Al-Azhar gathering of Islamic clerics and ulema and in the presence of the Minister of Awqaf (Religious Endowments), Sisi has taken the lead on one of the most divisive and sensitive issues facing the world today.

In direct opposition to the radicalism now terrorizing nations across the globe, Sisi told the assembled congregation: “Egypt has brought humanism and civilization to the world for millennia and we are all here today to confirm that we are capable of doing so again... Allah willing, we shall build our nation together, accommodate each other, make room for each other, and we shall like each each earnest, so that people may see….” He asserted that Egyptians were one people and had to think of themselves not as Christians or Muslims, but “as Egyptians, just Egyptians.”

His address was often interrupted by frantic applause, clapping, and cheers of "We love you!" and “hand in hand.”

Despite an overwhelmingly positive reception at church, reactions in Egypt were mixed on the day after. Copts had every reason to be elated, and they were, except for a few complaints about Sisi’s interruption of mass, and chants during prayers that were deemed disrespectful to the mass. Tony Sabry, a Coptic activist said: “It’s a very smart and nice gesture from Al-Sisi to get more Christians on his side.” Yet, he also called the interruption of the mass “inappropriate”, and noted that “it never happened before.”

Moderate Muslims also welcomed that community-building gesture and even those who were not in the habit of presenting their wishes to Christians at Christmas, reportedly took their cue from El-Sisi by calling their Coptic acquaintances and colleagues to congratulate them. There were, however, the expected dissonant notes on certain Facebook pages. “Well done!” read one comment, “You, Nazarenes, have lost the right to complain about your lesser status. Egypt is no longer a Muslim Nation -- it has turned Christian, or so it seems!”

The same discrepancies could be found on the liberal television station ONTV Egypt's public Facebook page, under the posted video of Sisi’s visit. Some were pleased with Sisi’s enlightened leadership, while others quoted a Koranic verse stating that Christians or Jews should not be treated as friends - coexistence was permissible but not friendship. One complainer asked why Pope Tawadros did not celebrate Eid Al-Adha with Muslims.

For some reason, comments posted in the online local press were more uniformly positive. “Sisi is a good man”, stated one, ” I remember very well Christmas time as a young boy -- my mother used to send me with a plate of biscuits in hands to our Moslem neighbors with whom we were as close as family. They did the same. We celebrated as one family, we were brought up to love each and every one.” Another ventured: “Egypt might be ready to chart a new course of religious tolerance and freedom. The next brave move will be perhaps to appoint a Christian Vice President!”

Christians Copts have always been said to represent 10% of Egypt’s population, but recent revelations by the Pope in the written press have put the figure at 16 million (20%), hinting at the deliberate downplaying of Copts’ real strength in the past for reasons tied to political representation.

Following is a transcript of El-Sisi's words:

"I would like to say a few brief words … please, allow me… It was necessary for me to come and present my wishes to you. I hope that I am not interrupting your prayers. I wanted to tell you something… Throughout millennia, Egypt brought humanism and civilization to the whole world….  And I'd like to tell you that the world is looking to Egypt even now, in this day and age and in the present circumstances, to…."

Then, Sisi interrupted himself to respond to cheers in the background: "We love you too... Yes, we do!."

This elicited further shouts and cheers of "We love you!"

"I thank you very, very much but honestly, I don't want his Holiness the Pope to be upset with me. Listen, it is very important that the world should see us... that the world should see us, Egyptians... and you'll note that I never use a word other than 'Egyptians'….  It’s not right to call each other by any other name…. We are Egyptians. Let no one ask 'what kind of Egyptian are you? (from what religious denomination?)

Please...please...listen to me...with these words we are showing the world the meaning of ...we are opening a space for genuine hope and light. As I said, 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!"

And echoing cries and cheers in the background, he confirmed: “That's right, hand in hand! "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 each other, love each other in earnest, so that people may see….

So let me tell you once again 'Happy New Year, Happy New Year to you all, Happy New Year to all Egyptians, Happy New Year to His Holiness the Pope'. Thank you but please... I won't take more of your time... Happy New Year!"

Michele Antaki was raised in Egypt and France. LLM of Law -  France. PG Diploma of Conference Interpretation. She was a UN interpreter in NY for 27 years in 4 languages.