El-Sisi’s Christmas Mass cameo a meaningful gesture
For the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria’s celebration of Christmas Eve on Jan. 6, Pope Tawadros II led Christmas Mass at the Cathedral of the Nativity in Egypt’s new administrative capital. Reportedly the largest cathedral in the Middle East, it was inaugurated exactly a year earlier, also on Christmas Eve. While the pope was officiating Mass, a convoy of armed vehicles appeared outside the church, prompting him to leave the sanctuary and head to the entrance. President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi was making an appearance, just after the top Coptic cleric had chosen the perfect piece of bread to be blessed in the highly symbolic ceremony.
Once welcomed by the pope, the former army general traversed a curious mix of adoring and objecting citizens and worshippers. He was followed step for step by the pope, crowded by a host of bodyguards. A large choir of deacons chanted in impeccable synchrony. They carried on as the president made his way down the long cathedral aisle, and only stopped when the two leaders ascended the altar, where the guest was handed a microphone. Interrupting Mass, the president delivered seasonal greetings to his Christian compatriots, along with a host of political messages to the entire country, live on national television.
El-Sisi’s two words, “ehna benhibbukum” (we love you), have become something of an annual refrain, which he has been delivering from the Coptic pulpit since he took office in 2014. Whether or not these two heads of state and church have embraced every year may be gleaned from video recordings of previous presidential visits to the pope —initiated, incidentally, in January 2014 by then-interim President Adly Mansour. This year, the two men exchanged a warm handshake and the customary brotherly kisses on the cheeks, after the president offered the pope a gift of white roses, along with good wishes for the New Year.
A few days into the year, Nahla Farouq, a Christian woman from Cairo who lost her two daughters in the bombing of a church near Cairo’s St. Mark’s Cathedral in December 2016, shared her heart-wrenching story on Sat-7, a regional Christian television channel. Marina, three days short of her 21st birthday, and her younger sister Februnia, an economics student, died as they were partaking in Mass.
The two young women would have been among other faithful hoping to receive a small piece of bread, similar to the one the pope was blessing before shaking hands with El-Sisi last week, as a symbolic act of communion with all believers throughout the ages. Being named after two early-church saints did not stop the young women’s flesh and blood, and those of their fellow worshippers, from being blown up by 12 kilograms of explosives at the moment of commemorating the sacrifice their faith tells them Jesus had made so people could have eternal life. Soon after, as the pope led an eight-hour funerary Mass for the 25 victims of the bombing — the death toll later rose to 29 — Farouq was overwhelmed by “grief and pain that fill the world.”
Similarly to Syriac and Armenian, Coptic is one of the oldest languages of Christendom. All three languages and their associated cultures are native to the Near East, and all face growing threats to their very presence in the region. Small wonder, then, that El-Sisi’s sentimental nativity address honed in on fraternal relations and equal citizenship.
In 2019, the country’s top political and religious leaders also inaugurated the new administrative capital’s mosque, built in tandem with its church, as a gesture of affinity.
In 2019, the country’s top political and religious leaders also inaugurated the new administrative capital’s mosque, built in tandem with its church, as a gesture of affinity. El-Sisi quoted a famous line the Coptic pope had used on multiple occasions, most famously at the opening of the Al-Azhar Anti-Terrorism Conference in 2014: “A homeland without churches is better than churches without a homeland.” El-Sisi’s emphatic message of solidarity also referenced Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayyib, Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mosque, on the protection of Christian houses of worship being a duty for Muslims.
The president’s mid-ritual appearance, while interrupting and at face value disrespectful of the spiritual significance of Mass, is a positively meaningful gesture to Egypt’s Christians. “It is part of a whole package,” Rev. Michael Anwar of the Presbyterian Church told me. Maintaining the integrity of Mass would be desirable, the Egyptian pastor explained, but in the wider picture the significance of El-Sisi’s visit (including his predictable sentimental line) cannot be overstated.
The uneasy marriage of secular and religious power is not a new sight, nor is their multipronged relationship in the Middle East a novel love affair. But the significance of it going on display, one way or another, during religious holidays, is rarely politically benign. On this Christmas Eve, it was business as usual in Egypt’s capital, if in contradictory ways. The annual display of affection between the top men of state and church is as complicated as any other. But it was also different this year, after a high-profile review commissioned by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office finally put an end to years of speculation about its efforts regarding the persecution of Christians around the world. And it wasn’t good news.
The Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review, delivered last July, is worthy of attention. But for now it is worth remembering that, along with Christians, millions of people are being persecuted because of their religious faith, and they include Muslims whose well-being globally is important for the Middle East. Evidence is yet to emerge about what has taken place in China after members of the Uighur minority were rounded up and placed in “re-education” camps. Also in places such as Myanmar and India, where the Rohingya people and other minorities have been on the receiving end of violence and discriminatory treatment that are inseparable from their religious identity.
Christmas celebrations have now ended, and life is back to normal in Cairo. Each leader is back to meeting separately with his men to carry out governing duties. The annual media frenzy around the acceptability of congratulating Christians for the birth of Jesus has all but died down, and so has the seasonal recognition given to the country’s sizeable Christian population. What will not die as quickly, however, is the sense of suffering the victims of persecution carry, nor — hopefully — will the dignity with which they carry it. State and inter-state policies, and whether they may change as the extent of suffering is recognized, are a different story.
- Tala Jarjour is author of Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo. She is Visiting Research Fellow at King's College London, and Associate Fellow of the Yale College.