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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Egypt's Copts prepare for opening of cathedral in new administrative capital

Pope Tawadros II, who heads the 10 million-strong Coptic Orthodox Church, hailed president Abdel Fattah El Sisi for following through on his promise to build the new cathedral

Pope Tawadros II leads the Easter mass at Saint Mark's Coptic Cathedral in Cairo's Al Abbassiya district on April 15, 2017. Khaled Desouki / AFP
Pope Tawadros II leads the Easter mass at Saint Mark's Coptic Cathedral in Cairo's Al Abbassiya district on April 15, 2017. Khaled Desouki / AFP

As Egypt's Copts prepare to dedicate a cathedral in the country's new administrative capital on Saturday night, the head of the Coptic Church has hailed president Abdel Fattah El Sisi for following through on his pledge to build it.

“The president made a promise when he came to offer season's greetings in 2017 and has fulfilled it,” Pope Tawadros II, who leads the 10 million-strong church, said on Wednesday.

“This Christmas we will be praying in the new cathedral which has been named 'The Nativity of Christ',” he added, referring to the Coptic Orthodox Christmas which takes place on January 7.

Saturday's Christmas Eve dedication mass will be held in the cathedral’s chapel and attended by about 3,000 people, including Mr El Sisi and representatives of the awkaf (religious endowments) ministry and Al Azhar, the main seat of Sunni Muslim theology and scholarship.

The cathedral is located in a new US$45 billion (Dh165.3bn) city being built in the desert 45 kilometres east of Cairo, which will become the new home of the Egyptian government and the country's banks and financial institutions. The city, part of a megainfrastructure projects drive by Mr El Sisi, is intended to reduce congestion in Cairo and will eventually house as many as 7 million people.

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The exact cost of the cathedral's construction has not been disclosed by church officials, but, according to state media, the Egyptian government and armed forces donated more than 215 million Egyptian pounds (Dh44.6m) to the project.

It was built by Egyptian construction giant, Orascom, under the supervision of the armed forces's engineers corps. Twin 200-foot bell towers — known as lighthouses in Egypt because they are illuminated at night — flank the cathedral which, unlike churches in the rest of the country, also has a dedicated parking garage.

Egypt's largest construction and engineering firms are still putting the final touches on the neighbouring Al Fattah Al Alim Mosque and will soon break ground on a museum to house Pharaonic, Islamic and Coptic artefacts in an embodiment of Mr El Sisi's vision of Egypt as a religiously tolerant society.

That vision has been shaken, however, by a wave of attacks on Egyptian Christians, with ISIL now describing the religious minority as its "favourite prey" in the country.

“It is a very great feeling that the president Sisi promised and fulfilled his promise" to build the new cathedral, the project's executive director, Wagih Amin, said, adding that he would be attending the dedication mass as a Christian worshipper rather than in a professional capacity.

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"But these terrorist incidents destroyed our sense of joy this Christmas, and I expect that other attacks will occur after the mass."

Activists and working-class members of Egypt's Coptic community have raised questions about whether the funds spent on the new cathedral could have been put to better, given the security and political challenges facing Copts. Despite the official line of religious tolerance being promoted by Mr El Sisi, the community continues to grapple with inter-religious tensions in much of the rest of the country, in addition to facing the threat posed by ISIL.

Following Mr El Sisi’s ascension to power in 2013 and the outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s parliament moved in 2016 to ease restrictive church building laws in an effort to promote a spirit of religious tolerance. But provincial-level disputes over permits and construction persist, while last year saw a spike in anti-Christian attacks.

“Christianity did not order the building of churches to boast of being the largest or the most beautiful, or to extol the legitimacy of the Sultan,” said Ishaak Ibrahim, chief religious minorities researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a human rights group that has monitored sectarian violence in the outskirts of Cairo. Mr Ibrahim referred to an incident on December 22 when a mob wrecked a building that had been used as a place of worship by Christians in the village of Atfieh, about 80 kilometres south of Cairo.

He said the attack came after Muslim villagers heard a rumour that church bells were to be installed on top of the building. “The [vulnerable] in the villages are having their churches closed,” he added. “Meanwhile I fear that the cathedral in the administrative capital will be a place to expel the pope and put him in even more isolation more than he already is.”

But Coptic businessmen — one of Mr El Sisi’s core constituencies — have hailed the president for his national megaprojects drive, which also includes improvements to the Suez Canal zone and the construction of the country’s first nuclear power plant on the Mediterranean coast north-west of Alexandria.

“What I know is that the state is the entity who donated the funds [for the] building of the new cathedral,” said Maged George, a 56-year-old cosmetics manufacturer who is a member of several executive church committees, as well as the government’s Pharmaceutical Export Council.

“This community will not be shaken by the oppressors who attack us violently or be dragged down by the desperate who do not see anything positive happening,” he added.

“I will go to the mass at the cathedral and send my children to pray there on the feast.”

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