CAIRO – In a show of solidarity with Egypt’s embattled Christians, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi Saturday made a symbolic appearance at an Orthodox Christmas Mass in a new cathedral as tens of thousands of soldiers and police deployed outside churches across the country in anticipation of possible attacks by Islamic militants.
“We, with the grace of God, are offering a message of peace and love from here, not just to Egyptians or to the region, but to the entire world,” el-Sissi told a jubilant congregation while standing next to Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic pontiff.
Orthodox Christians are the overwhelming majority of Egypt’s Christians, who account for about 10 percent of the population, or nearly 10 million. They celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7.
The new cathedral, named Christ’s Nativity, is located in Egypt’s new Administrative Capital, a 45-billion-dollar, under-construction project some 28 miles east of Cairo. The Christmas Eve Mass will consecrate the new cathedral and mark the first time in living memory that the liturgy is not held at St. Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of the orthodox church in central Cairo.
The new cathedral can house up to 9,000 worshippers and is touted as the largest in the Middle East.
El-Sissi arrived shortly after nightfall, as silver lights twinkled on the cathedral’s dome piercing the surrounding darkness. A general-turned-president, el-Sissi is viewed by most of Egypt’s Christians as their protector and ally in the face of Islamists. He led the military’s 2013 ouster of an Islamist president whose divisive rule alarmed many Christians fearful over their future in the country.
The cathedral’s bells tolled as Tawadros received el-Sissi outside the cathedral and they walked inside together. Women ululated in jubilation and many in the congregation waved Egyptian flags or threw white rose buds at the smiling president, who waved back and shook hands with some of them.
“I’d like to express in a special way my closeness to Orthodox Coptic Christians, and I cordially greet my brother Tawadros II in the glorious occasion of the consecration of the Cathedral of Cairo,” Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, said in remarks Saturday to the faithful after celebrating an Epiphany Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Francis visited Egypt last year.
In Cairo and across much of the country, soldiers in full combat gear are joining the police in protecting churches, most of which are now equipped with metal detectors. Worshippers undergo body searches at church entrances. Some churches have had their surrounding streets sealed off, with sidewalks barricaded to control pedestrian movement.
The tight security across Egypt is a precaution against possible attacks by Islamic militants who have specifically targeted Christians since December 2016, staging a series of bombings, killing about 100 people.
On Dec. 29, a militant opened fire outside a suburban Cairo church, killing at least nine people. Earlier in December, an angry Muslim mob stormed an unlicensed church also south of Cairo, ransacking the facility.
A local affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for most attacks on Christians. The group is spearheading an insurgency centered in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula but also targeting the country’s mainland.
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