On Thursday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi showed up at the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ, in the new Administrative Capital, to celebrate Christmas with the Coptic Christians, who represent the majority of the Christian citizens in Egypt. Since he took office in 2014, President El-Sisi has been careful to attend Christmas celebrations at the central cathedral, every January. In 2019, El-Sisi inaugurated the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ, in the new Administrative Capital, to be the biggest cathedral in the entire Middle East region.
In the eyes of the foreign audience, El-Sisi’s visit to the Cathedral may appear like an ordinary ritual by a political leader towards his fellow citizens, on their special holiday. However, for the Egyptian citizens, who suffered for decades from extremism and discrimination, such presidential gestures are assuring signs that Egypt is on the right track for instating long-term security and stability.
For decades, the Coptic Christian citizens, who comprise more than 15% of the Egyptian population, had suffered marginalization and discrimination, as a result of corrupt state practices, unfair laws, and the quick rise of extremist Islamists in rural cities. Under the short period of the Muslim Brotherhood rule, the Coptic Christians suffered even more, especially in cities, like Sinai, where Islamist terrorist organizations targeted them because of their religion. In that sense, it is not surprising that the largest number of El-Sisi’s electoral supporters are Coptic Christians and women. Both groups saw a refuge in El-Sisi’s anti-Islamist policies from all the discrimination they suffered, in the past.
Freedom of belief is guaranteed by the Constitution but has never been respected by society or politicians. Former presidents used to abuse religion to upscale their political game or oppress the opposition. President Nasser (1954-1971) discriminated against Egyptian Jews because he was involved in war with Israel, on behalf of the Arabs. President El-Sadat (1971-1981) empowered Islamic extremists to rid him of the communist Nasserists, whom he stigmatized by calling them disbelievers. Ironically, he was assassinated by those Islamic extremists later when he made a peace treaty with Israel. President Mubarak (1981-2011) politically muted Coptic Christians by manipulating the heads of the Egyptian church and showing tolerance towards sectarian discrimination practices.
In absolute contrast, President El-Sisi has shown unparalleled dedication to improving the status of religious freedom, as a tool to combat violent extremism and restore peace, security, and stability in the country. President El-Sisi came to power during a period of extreme chaos and insecurity purposefully ordained by the Muslim Brotherhood to avenge their removal from power, in June 2013. By never hesitating to take shocking steps towards reviving the Jewish and Christian heritage of Egypt, and pressuring Al-Azhar to renovate the Islamic extremist rhetoric, El-Sisi managed to re-awaken the public mindset of religious and cultural tolerance, which has always been the secret ingredient for Egypt’s gloriousness, over its long history.
As one recent example, last year, the Ministry of Education approved a new school curriculum, for primary and mid-school students, that explores the religious texts and common values of the three Abrahamic religions; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Jewish religious texts have not been taught in Egyptian schools, since the Nasser era. In a youth conference, in 2017, El-Sisi said that "every Egyptian citizen is free to choose what to worship, or not to have a religion at all." Such words were new to the ears of many Egyptians.
In that sense, President El-Sisi’s Support to the Coptic Christian citizens, and religious freedom in general, is welcomed by most Egyptians as an indicator that Egyptians are firmly united, and thus Egypt is stable and secure. In his speech at the Cathedral, on Thursday, President El-Sisi confirmed that the unity of Egyptians is what “makes us able to deal with any challenges or difficulties with ease,” and called upon Egyptians not to allow anyone to divide them.
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