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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

We stand united with Copts this Christmas

Attacks such as that on a Helwan church only increase determination to eliminate terrorism

The Egyptian Coptic community in Abu Dhabi celebrating Christmas Eve mass today in St. Anthony's Cathedral / Khushnum Bhandari/ The National)
The Egyptian Coptic community in Abu Dhabi celebrating Christmas Eve mass today in St. Anthony's Cathedral / Khushnum Bhandari/ The National)

Tomorrow marks the Coptic Orthodox Christmas, when millions of Christian worshippers across the Middle East will mark one of the holiest dates of their calendar. It also marks the inauguration of a new purpose-built cathedral in the heart of Egypt’s new US$45 billion business and financial district, built on the orders of president Abdel Fattah El Sisi as a symbol of unity and comradeship. The president, together with members of the religious endowments ministry Awkaf and the Al Azhar Islamic school of theology, will be among the congregation of 3,000 taking part in the cathedral’s first Christmas Eve mass tonight.

There will undoubtedly be a sombre note to the festivities. Just a week ago a gunman killed at least nine people in an attack on Egypt’s Coptic Christian community. In the attack claimed by ISIL, he opened fire on a Christian shop before shooting at worshippers at the Mar Mina church in southern Cairo. The deadly incident has shaken a community which has worked hard at establishing inclusivity for all members of society, including its 10 million Coptic Christians, who have been targeted repeatedly over the years. Tragically, religious holidays have previously sparked other incidents; in December 2016, a bomb blast at a cathedral killed 28 people while bombings at two churches on Palm Sunday claimed 43 lives. Random attacks by militants targeting houses of worship are the scourge of not only Egypt but a number of societies where multiple faiths live side by side, largely in peace. The presence of Mr El Sisi and religious dignitaries from different faiths at Egypt’s Coptic Christmas celebrations sends out a strong message: violence will not be tolerated. Standing together with resolve and dignity flies in the face of the fear terrorists hope to instigate. It shows attacks such as last Friday’s shooting have only served to unite, not divide, a community.

The UAE’s own expansive Coptic Christian congregation, who will be marking Christmas in several churches across the emirates, now numbers thousands. Members will be standing with their Egyptian counterparts in spirituality and solidarity. In a country renowned for its tolerance of all faiths, Muslims traditionally light candles in the churches at Christmas and join worshippers in celebrating. Many of those Christians have described in this newspaper how they feel at peace and at home here, in a place where they are free to worship openly.

Beyond emergency measures and a security response, it is these gestures which count. There will always be extremists who seek to divide and cause chaos by instilling terror but responding with gestures of acceptance and respect, from the uppermost ranks of society, is an effective tool in ensuring change. Mr El Sisi recognises he has to teach by example; as he said: “They only increase our determination to continue on the path to eliminate terrorism and extremism.”

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