In January, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt stood side-by-side with Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Inaugurating the Cathedral of Nativity, the largest church in the Middle East, he uttered two remarkable words that reverberated through the national broadcast to Muslim homes throughout the nation.
If some Christians find this phrase under siege in America, they have no idea the power unleashed by the president’s words. Eight years earlier, emboldened by the Arab Spring and empowered by the Muslim Brotherhood presidency of Mohamed Morsi, ultra-conservative Salafi Muslims sparked nationwide controversy by declaring no pious Muslim could utter the words.
Their point was theological—Christmas celebrates God becoming man in Jesus, and a Muslim cannot congratulate a Christian neighbor for such blasphemy. But the impact was social. Easygoing Egyptians had long wished each other good greetings on respective religious feasts. Salafis are better practicing Muslims than we are, many would admit, and a chill began to spread in community relations.
When then-defense minister Sisi overthrew Morsi following widespread protests against his rule, he did so with Pope Tawadros—and the head of al-Azhar, the leading Islamic institution in Egypt—standing nearby in support. As president he became the first to attend a Christmas mass, a practice he has continued. He speaks strongly about the rights of Christians and their place in the nation. And in building a new capital city he made sure the centerpiece landmarks would be the region’s largest mosque and church, built side-by-side. There is no Merry Christmas controversy today.
But do Sisi’s words fall on deaf ears? Are the arms of the state too weak? Or might he be of double mind, grandiloquent in gesture, apathetic in implementation? Two other church examples counterbalance the cathedral…
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