Egypt’s president has inaugurated a new cathedral for the Coptic Orthodox Church and one of the region’s largest mosques in a highly symbolic gesture at a time when Islamic militants are increasingly targeting the country’s minority Christians.
Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a general-turned-president, has made sectarian harmony a cornerstone of his rule, fighting Islamic militancy while advocating equality between the overwhelming Muslim majority and Christians, who account for 10% of Egypt’s 100 million people.
“This is a historic and important moment,” said Mr el-Sissi inside the cathedral.
“But we still have to protect the tree of love we planted here together today because seditions never end.”
The Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the world’s primary seat of learning for Sunni Muslims, echoed Mr el-Sissi’s sentiments in comments also made at the cathedral.
The two places of worship, he said, stand as a symbol in the face of “attempts to undermine the country’s stability and sectarian seditions.”
Mr el-Sissi’s widely publicised policy to staunch sectarianism, however, has done little to protect Christians in rural Egypt, where Muslim extremists frequently attack their homes and businesses or force them to leave their homes after violent disputes.
Critics and activists say discrimination against Christians there is often tolerated by local authorities and branches of the security agencies. Christians also complain of stringent restrictions on the construction of churches.
But Sunday’s opening ceremony in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital, Mr el-Sissi’s brainchild that is located in the desert east of Cairo, stressed what the pro-government media like to call the “unbreakable national fabric” of Christians and Muslims.
Entertainers and chorus lines took to the stage to sing about the two faiths living peacefully side by side.
Short films on the same topic were also screened.
The ceremony’s presenters portrayed the construction of the cathedral and the mosque, which took 18 months to complete, as a message to humanity.
“It is a message to the whole world that Egypt is a nation for all,” said one presenter.