New Hope For Egypt’s Copts?
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited the main Coptic Christian cathedral Tuesday during its Christmas Eve mass (Coptic Christians celebrated Christmas yesterday), “the first such visit by an Egyptian president in history” according to First Things writer Mark Movsesian. “It’s important for the world to see this scene, which reflects true Egyptian unity, and to confirm that we’re all Egyptians, first and foremost. We truly love each other without discrimination, because this is the Egyptian truth,” Sisi told service attenders.
Coptic Pop al-Tawadri thanked Sisi for his visit, calling it “a pleasant surprise and a humanitarian gesture.”
It isn’t the first such gesture that Sisi has made—in a speech celebrating the birth of Mohammed on New Year’s Day, he called on Muslim religious leaders to help fight against extremism: “I say and repeat, again, that we are in need of a religious revolution,” he said, according to CNN. “You imams are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting on you. … We need a revolution of the self, a revolution of consciousness and ethics to rebuild the Egyptian person—a person that our country will need in the near future.”
The Coptic Church very publicly backed Sisi during the overthrow of the Morsi government in 2013, and Copts have been suffering serious reprisals from the Muslim Brotherhood ever since. In fact, some commentators say Copts are experiencing the worst persecution in hundreds of years. Christmas liturgies, in Egypt and elsewhere in the Mideast, have become very dangerous, and some Muslim leaders in Egypt tell followers not even to wish Christians a Merry Christmas. … What would elsewhere be a routine event, a politician wishing a community well on its holiday, is, in this context, a crucial show of support.
There may be mixed reasons for Sisi’s outreach.While there is a large degree of humanitarianism and generosity reflected in his speeches and actions, it is also true that the president’s greatest opponents to date have been members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Egyptian organization that was responsible for much maltreatment of the Copts throughout the Arab Spring and during democratically-elected and MB member President Mohammed Morsi’s short rule. It is Morsi that was thrown out by the military and replaced by Sisi—a rather undemocratic turn of events, perhaps, but one that may end up protecting the rights of Egypt’s minorities to a greater degree.
That said, Islamic extremism is still strong in Egypt. Whether Sisi is really rejecting fundamentalism or caliphate law outright is difficult to ascertain. Some are understandably skeptical—as the New York Timesnoted, “Some Coptic activists now complain that his government has failed to curb the biases in government and law enforcement, such as criminal prosecutions of Christians for blasphemy or cumbersome permitting procedures that restrict the building of churches.”
Whether Sisi’s efforts are merely a form of lip service to the minorities, or genuine sentiments, remains to be seen. In light of the brutal killings that took place in Paris yesterday, however, these gestures offers at least some promise to the Copts, who have undergone much persecution at the hands of extremists.