Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi celebrated Christmas with Coptic Christians, issuing a speech in which he pledged to rebuild churches torn down by Islamists.
The Mass took place at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abbasiya.
In 2014, Sisi became the first Egyptian president to celebrate Christmas Mass.
“In this occasion, I want to exhort you all, let no one come between us,” he declared. “Nothing can harm us, not our economic conditions or political conditions. Unless we diverge, we can overcome anything.”
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The Muslim Brotherhood hunted and destroyed at least 65 Coptic churches in 2013 after the military ousted President Mohamed Morsi.
“God has created us different … in religion, manner, colour, language, habit, tradition … and no one can make us the all same,” continued Sisi.
Sisi also admitted the government has taken too long to fix the churches, despite numerous promises to rebuild the past 36 months.
“We have taken too long to fix and renovate [churches] that were burned. … This year everything will be fixed,” he stated. “Please accept our apologies for what happened, … God willing … by next year there won’t be a single church or house that is not restored.”
“We will never forget the stance you and the Pope took during this period. … Thank you all. Merry Christmas.”
In August 2013, then-General Sisi “ordered the engineering department of the armed forces to swiftly repair” the churches the Muslim Brotherhood destroyed.
Muslims joined efforts to raise money to build a new Coptic Church just north of Cairo in April. Coptic Orthodox Bishop Benyamin started a fund to build a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. He asked his parishioners to reach people near and far to donate towards the church. Islamic leaders in the area heard about the fund and asked Muslims to also donate money.
“Most of our people are afraid,” explained Father Mina Adel, a priest at the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria. “Not a few are leaving – for America, Canada and Australia. Dozens of families from this church alone are trying to go too.”
Last month, leaders of Egypt’s Coptic community attended a UN minority rights forum in Geneva, where they condemned the country’s blasphemy law. Medhat Kelada, head of the European Coptic Organizations Union, claims the law “badly exploited against the Copts.”
However, at the same time, the leaders praised Sisi for protecting them from the Muslim Brotherhood. Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros considers the president a “hero.”
But some believe the government will not completely change.
“Sisi is conservative. He doesn’t care about religious freedom,” said Mina Thabet, researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.
Orthodox Christians celebrated the Christmas holiday on Thursday, January 7.