CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi appeared at Coptic Christmas Eve Mass on Monday and praised the links between the country’s Christian and Muslim faithful, saying they have prevented the country from descending into sectarian strife like its neighbors.
El-Sissi, who is a practicing Muslim, arrived at the cathedral in the middle of the Mass and was met by Coptic Pope Tawadros II on the doorstep before greeting churchgoers. Egyptian State television aired his appearance at the new cathedral, just finished last year, and showed people crowding around him to shake his hand, filming with mobile phones.
“God saw fit for us to live in difficult circumstances…. But as long as we’re together … no one can do anything to us,” he told the crowd.
El-Sissi has attended several previous Christmas Eve services held by the country’s Coptic Orthodox minority. Predominantly Muslim Egypt has an estimated 10 million Coptic Christians, who face restrictions in inter-religious marriages and church building, and who are banned from proselytizing to Muslims.
The Copts, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7.
Coptic Christians have been the object of attacks since the country began battling an Islamic insurgency in the 1990s. Those attacks have continued in the aftermath of the army’s overthrow of an elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013, and under el-Sissi.
He has frequently said that Egypt has only narrowly avoided civil war and violence due to his government’s policies and the military’s success in battling an ongoing Islamist insurgency in the Sinai peninsula.
But his government has also overseen a broad and far-reaching crackdown against dissent. In its latest round, several thousand were arrested. Some hundreds were later released, but many remain in detention.
In December 2016, an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 30 people at Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral. The extremist group pledged more attacks on the Christian minority, which it views as an ally of the West in a war against Islam. The next year, in April, IS suicide bombers struck Coptic churches in two cities on Palm Sunday, killing at least 45 people.