(Originally published at www.firstthings.com on January 12, 2016)
Egypt’s Coptic Christians follow the Julian calendar in celebrating Christmas on January 7th of each year. For the second consecutive year, Egyptian president Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi surprised them with an exceptionally kind gesture, once again personally attending their Coptic Christmas Eve mass and offering them his well-wishes. He is the first Egyptian President since 1952 to attend Christmas Eve Mass. All previous presidents—Naguib, Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, and Morsi—never attended Coptic Christmas mass, which is the most important celebration in any given year for Egypt’s Copts.
Egypt is a majority-Muslim nation. Most of its Muslims are Sunni. While there are no official statistics, Egypt’s Christians constitute around 12 percent of the 90 million people who make up the most populous Arab country. Al-Sisi is well-known as a committed Sunni Muslim. He came to power in June 2014, after the revolution of Egypt’s people against former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, calling on the military for the termination of the devastating tenure of the Muslim Brotherhood regime.
According to various news accounts, Al-Sisi entered St. Mark Cathedral on Coptic Christmas Eve and was greeted with joyful cheers and jubilant applause. The Coptic Pope, Tawadros II, as well as tens of Coptic Bishops and deacons, warmly welcomed the President. His speech was often interrupted by clapping and cheers of “We love you” from the attendees.
This gesture is remarkable.
Al-Sisi is increasingly winning the hearts of Egypt’s Copts. His first words in the Coptic mass were: “Merry Christmas to you [Copts], and to all of us [Muslims and Christians].”
He situates himself in contrast with his Muslim Brotherhood predecessor, Mohammed Morsi, whose rule witnessed unprecedented sectarian tensions against Christians. The events included attacks on the Coptic Cathedral by thugs, vigilantes, and Muslim Brotherhood police forces for the first time in history. More than 58 other Coptic churches were set ablaze.
During the Muslim Brotherhood’s time in power, various radical Sunni preachers took advantage of the Islamists’ rule and insisted on a religious authoritative ruling (fatwa) affirming that Muslims are not supposed to congratulate Christians on Christmas day. Christians believe in the divinity and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and they must not be affirmed in their faith. Islamists, in those days, publicly called Christians “dirty cross worshippers,” “infidels,” and “miscreant crusaders.”
In visiting the Coptic Cathedral, al-Sisi offers a different message to the Copts and the world: not all Muslims are intolerant.
Al-Sisi, in his visit, declared: “No one can ever separate us [Muslims and Christians].” Moreover, he acknowledged that the government has been delinquent in repairing and renovating the destroyed churches. Addressing the Coptic Pope, al-Sisi vowed that all these churches and Copt-owned homes will be repaired and rebuilt this year. Addressing Coptic worshippers, al-Sisi said, “Please accept our apologies about that [the burning and destruction of the churches during the rule of Islamists].” This is the first time in the history of modern Egypt that the Sunni Muslim president has presented an official apology to the Copts. He concluded, “Long live Egypt with all of us!”
The comments of al-Sisi to the Copts this week follow his call for a reformation in Islam. Last January, speaking before Muslim clerics of al-Azhar, a prestigious Sunni University, al-Sisi requested from them a reformation of contemporary Muslim discourse, encouraging them to speak and support a renewed vision of Islam, especially in how Muslims are to interpret the corpus of Islamic texts and traditions, precisely those that relate to the treatment non-Muslims.
This is an extraordinary example of tolerance and religious coexistence. In such troubling times, with sounds of radical religious slogans and discourses, the example of al-Sisi stands out as unique and commendable.
Ayman S. Ibrahim, PhD, is Bill and Connie Jenkins Chair and Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the Senior Fellow for the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam, and a Post-Doctoral candidate of Middle Eastern History at Haifa University.