CAIRO, Egypt – Pope Francis sent Christmas and New Year’s greetings to Coptic Christians and all Egyptians upon the inauguration of a major Coptic cathedral, jointly opened with a larger mosque at the same complex.
“With joy I greet all of you, on the happy occasion of the dedication of the new Cathedral of the Nativity, built in the new administrative capital,” the pope said. “The prince of peace gives the gift of peace and prosperity to Egypt, the Middle East and all the world.”
For the Coptic Orthodox, Jan. 7 marks the celebration of Christmas. Francis’s message in part addressed the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who also bears the title “Pope.”
“I offer a special greeting to my very dear brother His Holiness Pope Tawadros II and to the dear Coptic Orthodox Church, which is known to give a true witness of faith and charity even in very difficult times,” Francis said.
The cathedral has a capacity of 8,200 people and takes up 30 percent of a 4.1-acre complex designed around a large central square, the Egyptian news site Ahram Online says. It is located in Egypt’s new administrative capital to the east of Cairo.
“May the worship of God in the highest heaven ever be welcomed in the new cathedral, and may blessings and peace descend upon all people, whom God loves,” the pope’s message continued.
The church’s newly dedicated neighbor, Al-Fattah Al-Alim Mosque, is claimed to be the largest mosque in Egypt and the Middle East, with a capacity of over 17,000 people. Both were constructed over a period of about 18 months.
Christians make up about ten percent of Egypt’s 98 million people. The vast majority of these Christians are Coptic Orthodox, with roots dating back to the apostolic period.
The dedication event follows years of trouble for Christians in the region. The beheading of 20 Coptic Christians and another man in Libya was recorded on video and shocked the world when it was released in February 2015.
In December 2016, A bomb exploded at a chapel attached to St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, killing over 20 people.
In February 2017, the Islamic State group called for Egypt’s Christians to be targeted. Dozens of Christians were killed in Palm Sunday church bombings that year. Islamic militants have sometimes conducted deadly attacks on buses of Christians traveling to Christian sites.
Francis alluded to these deaths in his message, saying “you have some martyrs who give strength to your faith. Thank you for your example.”
Legal regulations on new church construction and church repair have created a heavy burden on the region’s Christians. Middle East observers at the Project on Middle East Democracy suggested that despite the construction of the prominent cathedral, many of these issues are still unresolved.
In his message, Francis gave separate greetings to the Egyptian government and to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who attended the ceremonies.
The inauguration ceremonies began at the complex’s convention center. Various artists performed Islamic chants and Christian hymns. A children’s choir sang about Egyptian unity amid religious difference, as did the popular singer Angham.
Tawadros toured the mosque with El-Sisi, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other local and international leaders.
“This is a day of joy as we see our beloved country write a new page in the history of civilization,” the Coptic pope said.
“Today we celebrate an unprecedented occasion where the minarets of Al-Fattah Al-Alim Mosque are embracing those of the Nativity of the Christ Cathedral, opening a new horizon for our beloved country on this happy occasion, achieved through the Egyptian people’s donations and efforts with sincerity and love.”
“As an Egyptian citizen, I am happy to stand in the mosque to celebrate its opening with my Muslim brothers,” he continued, praising el-Sisi’s fulfillment of his promise to build the mosque and the cathedral.
“We pray for our unity to continue as the world witnesses such tolerance and love in our country, God bless you all, long live Egypt,” he said.
During the dedication of a plaque outside the church, Muslim cleric Sheikh Ahmed al Tayyeb of Al-Azhar Mosque, a leading Sunni institution, said the joint inauguration is “the embodiment of the soul of brotherhood and love.” He said Islamic law requires safeguarding Christian and Jewish houses of worship just as mosques are protected.
After entering the cathedral, el-Sisi said the occasion sends the message “that we will not allow anybody to come between us.” He voiced dislike for calling conflicts “sectarian strife,” because “Muslims and Christians in Egypt are one, and will stay one.”
He said the event “represents a tree of love which we have planted together, but this tree still needs attention and care so that its fruit reaches from Egypt to the whole world.”
“Strife will not end, but God saved Egypt and he will continue to do so for the sake of its people,” the president said. He discussed the 2013 attacks on Egyptian churches, saying Tawadros’s words helped the country repair the damage and build new projects.
El-Sisi, a former general, became president in the 2013 elections following a military coup against a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood. He was re-elected in 2018 but his government’s human rights record has faced strong criticism due to its treatment of its political opponents.
The dedication event took place under significant security. A policeman was killed trying to defuse an explosive device near a church in a Cairo neighborhood late on Saturday. The explosion wounded two policemen, including the bomb squad commander, BBC News reports.
In April 2017, Francis traveled to Cairo and appeared in public with Tawadros II and other religious figures. Francis honored various Coptic martyrs during this visit, and declared that the sufferings of the Copts “are also our sufferings.”