The largest church in the Middle East was inaugurated amid tight security Sunday, on what was Christmas Eve for Coptic Christians. In a symbolic gesture, one of the region’s largest mosques was inaugurated the same day, with Egypt’s president calling for unity.
The Cathedral of the Nativity, located in what will be Egypt’s new administrative capital, can hold about 8,000 worshipers. The church celebrated its first Mass one day after a police officer died while defusing a bomb on a nearby rooftop. Three other people, including two officers, were injured, though the church sustained no major damage.
Coptic Christians Face Ongoing Persecution
The Coptic Orthodox Church, which traces its history to the Apostle Mark’s visit to Egypt about AD 50, is the country’s main group of Christians, comprising 10 percent of the population. Coptic Christians have been targeted by Islamic extremists and were nominated for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for refusing to fight back.
Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi has defended Christians and their right to worship safely. Addressing worshipers at the cathedral’s opening, he said, “We are one, and we will remain one,” referencing the country’s Christians and Muslims. “This is a historic and important moment,” el-Sisi said, “but we still have to protect the tree of love we planted here together today, because seditions never end.”
El-Sisi’s campaign to end sectarianism and violence isn’t having the desired results, especially in rural Egypt. Christians there face frequent attacks and discrimination by local officials, according to activists. During the past two years, ISIS has claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed at least 100 Christians in Egypt.
On Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted, “Excited to see our friends in Egypt opening the biggest Cathedral in the Middle East. President El-Sisi is moving his country to a more inclusive future!”
The Cathedral’s Opening Emphasized Inclusivity and Peace
In addition to el-Sisi, guests at Sunday’s ceremony included Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and other Arab dignitaries. A recorded video message was played from Pope Francis, who prayed that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, would give “Egypt, the Middle East and the whole world the gift of peace and prosperity.” Pope Francis added that the Coptic Pope, Tawadros II, and the entire Coptic Church are giving “a true testimony of faith and love even in the most difficult moments.”
The opening Mass at the Cathedral of the Nativity included a moment of silence for Mustafa Abid, the police officer who was killed in Saturday’s explosion. It also featured entertainers, singers and a fireworks display. One presenter called the simultaneous opening of the cathedral and the mosque “a message to the whole world that Egypt is a nation for all.”
Later that day, President el-Sisi inaugurated the Al-Fattah Al-Aleem mosque, which can hold 16,000 worshipers.
Armed guards, security checks and metal detectors are common at Egypt’s churches. Critics say the government offers inadequate protection for the vulnerable Christian population.