CAIRO, Egypt — Tens of thousands of soldiers and police were deployed across Egypt Saturday to beef up security for minority Christians and their churches on the eve of Orthodox Christmas.
The overwhelming majority of Egypt’s Christians are members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7.
The Coptic pontiff, Pope Tawadros II, will lead Christmas Mass later Saturday at an unfinished cathedral in Egypt’s new Administrative Capital, a 45-billion-dollar, under-construction project east of Cairo. The Mass will consecrate the new cathedral and mark the first time in living memory that Christmas Mass is not held in St. Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of the orthodox church in central Cairo.
The new Cathedral, called the Nativity of Christ, can house up to 9,000 worshippers and is touted as the largest in the Middle East. An estimated 3,000 people are expected to attend Saturday’s Mass and President Abdel-fattah el-Sissi, the driving force behind the new capital, is also expected to attend.
“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 said in remarks Saturday to the faithful after celebrating an Epiphany Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. Francis visited Egypt last year.
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.
Associated Press writer Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.