Does 1 Huge New Church in Egypt Make Up for the Troubles with 24 Small Ones?

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Celebrating Christmas with Egyptian Christians for the fourth consecutive year, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi presented the largest gift under the tree: A new cathedral.

Sisi was the first president in Egypt’s history to even attend a Christmas mass. During last year’s celebration, he promised to build Egypt’s largest church and largest mosque in a yet-to-be-developed new administrative capital.

Three weeks earlier, 27 people had been killed in a suicide bombing in a chapel adjacent the old cathedral and papal residence, St. Mark’s in Cairo.

“Evil, destruction, and killing will never defeat goodness, peace, and love,” Sisi said at this month’s cathedral inauguration. “We are one, and you are our families. No one can ever divide us.”

Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II called the new church, named The Nativity of Christ, a “divine arrangement.” Fifty years earlier, St. Mark’s was built by President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Pope Kyrillos VI.

Egypt’s new administrative capital lies 28 miles east of Cairo, and is a flagship project of President Sisi, set to be completed in 2020.

Built on land donated by the state, the cathedral covers roughly 30 percent of a four-acre campus. Christmas mass filled the ground floor with 2,500 worshipers, bussed out by the Orthodox church. Total capacity will eventually reach 8,200 people, while its twin spires rise over 200 feet.

“I am so happy,” said Andrea Zaki, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt. “Built together with a mosque, it is a step that strengthens citizenship and equality.”

Zaki is confident that Protestants will also receive a land allotment in the new administrative capital, as three churches have already been authorized for their denomination in other newly planned cities.

Hany Lotfy, a juice stand owner in Cairo, was overjoyed to see such a beautiful church in an area of priority for the government.

But he recalled also last year’s attack.

“The old cathedral is in a crowded area, needs more space, and is harder to secure,” he said. “The president wants to compensate us for our difficulties, and make us happy.”

The new cathedral will not stop terrorism, Lotfy said, and may even incite extremists further as a tempting high-profile target. Over 100 Copts were killed this past year in terrorist attacks.

Christmas Day (which was January 7 for Egyptian Christians) passed safely, with more than 230,000 security personnel assigned to guard the nation’s churches.

But less than two weeks earlier, eight Copts and a policeman were killed in an attack on a church in Helwan, in southern Cairo.

Given the grief suffered by martyrs, Ishak Ibrahim believes it was not the appropriate time to celebrate a new cathedral. But the religion officer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) also did not appreciate how its image contrasts with an ongoing reality.

“The state is building a big church,” he said, “at a time the smaller churches are being attacked, or closed.”

One week prior to the Helwan incident, a church in Atfih, 60 miles south of Cairo, was ransacked—not by terrorists, but by dozens of local Muslims offended by the rumor that a bell would be installed in the unlicensed village church.

In a recent report by EIPR, Egypt witnessed 20 similar sectarian incidents at churches over a 13-month period. Ibrahim said the total is now up to 24.

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Source: Christianity Today