Um…so, this happened last week.
For those of you who don’t know, Copts celebrate Christmas on January 7th.
And for those of you who don’t know, our blood has flowed through Egypt’s streets since Mohammad’s brutal invasion well over 1,000 years ago. (Why do you think the Saudi flag features two swords?)
The discrimination Copts face is legal and cultural. A Copt cannot legally become president, for example. To cite another, Coptic Orthodox girls are abducted regularly. They are raped, forced to convert to Islam (clinging to the hope such a conversion will preserve their lives), and murdered. Local authorities don’t give a damn. They stall (and sometimes don’t even begin) investigations. Why? Such an outcome is better, after all, isn’t it? I could go on and on.
There’s a reason why my parents left all those years ago. They saw the writing on the wall.
As you can imagine, given the climate I’ve just described, no Egyptian president has bothered attending one of our feast celebrations.
Until now, that is.
In what was an historic moment, President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, a moderate who has called repeatedly for a religious revolution in Islam, surprised Copts around the globe in its entirely with his visit to our main cathedral last week during Midnight Mass.
In the monumental visit, he greeted (enthusiastically–not lethargically) our Patriarch, Tawadros II, as well as other prominent Copts. He even spoke for a few moments, reminding the world that, in this time of turmoil, we stand together as Egyptians.
What a man.
No one is perfect. I’ve never argued Sisi is.
But this is unprecedented.
No Egyptian leader has acknowledged the Coptic Orthodox community this way. No one has been this gracious, this unifying, this warm. Describing just how meaningful a gesture of this nature was is difficult. Copts both at home and abroad wept with gratitude and what was genuine shock. Families separated by oceans (and sometimes politics) called one another in amazement to discuss the potentially game-changing development.
Assume, for a moment, which I don’t, that he was insincere. That he did this only as a political stunt. (Quite hard to imagine, really. We’re not a powerful minority; he stood to lose a great deal by this.)
Still, it matters.
It goes a long way to mending Copt-Muslim relations.
The images, alone, were something to behold. Pictures of Al-Sisi embracing Tawadros at the front of the cathedral, with such rich Coptic iconography in the background, stunned.
Though hardly mentioned in the West, the story was on the front page of virtually every Arab newspaper. Arab television shows in cities from Cairo to Baghdad to Damascus to Jerusalem analyzed the visit in wonder.
Remember, a little over a year ago, Copts were being slaughtered in the streets (again). The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists blamed the Copts, who sometimes (not often, just sometimes) embrace Western values, for Morsi’s ouster (like it was a bad thing). (Note: Most of the nearly 35 million protesters who flooded Cairo (Midan-Al-Tahrir), Alexandria, and beyond, were decent Muslims.)
I, for one, give Sisi the benefit of the doubt. He is a thoughtful Muslim. Days before he did this, he spoke at no less than Al-Azhar, the premier Islamic institution, calling for deep self-reflection within the Muslim community. He highlighted the need for pluralism, and encouraged Muslims to abandon violence.
He is different. Better. He is a better man. Not perfect, no, but the best we’ve had. If the Middle East had a greater number of leaders who agreed with him ideologically, the region would be far more stable and prosperous.
Take a look at the video and see how the congregants greeted him. If you speak Arabic, you’ll understand even more the value of his commentary.
I’m thankful President Sisi paid us a visit. He did both Christians, as well as Muslims, a great service.