CAIRO (CNS) — In an unprecedented and highly symbolic move, Egypt’s interim President Adly Mansour paid a Christmas visit to the leader of the country’s Coptic Orthodox, Egyptian Pope Tawadros II.
Previous presidents have extended Christmas greetings through presidential envoys or by phone.
Mansour’s visit to Pope Tawadros’ papal seat in St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo was the first of its kind since former President Gamal Abdel-Nasser attended a consecration ceremony there more than 40 years ago, local media reported.
Mansour “was keen to show Pope Tawadros II the appreciation of Egypt to all the efforts of the Coptic citizens who have been working for the welfare and interest of the country,” said the presidential spokesman, Ihab Badawi, according to the state-run website, Ahram Online.
The visit took place two days before Coptic Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated in Egypt Jan. 7.
Pope Tawadros and other Egyptian Christian leaders, including Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak, openly backed the army’s July 3 ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi, after mass demonstrations against his rule.
Since the military takeover, there have been attacks on Christians and their properties as well as on government security facilities, which the army and the government it installed blame on the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups who support Morsi.
The Brotherhood denies the accusations and says the new government is seeking to discredit it. It says hundreds of its supporters were killed in the forced removal last August of two sit-ins protesting the overthrow of the now-imprisoned Morsi, who won Egypt’s first democratic presidential elections in 2012.
Thirteen people were shot dead in some of the latest violence that erupted Jan. 3, when Muslim Brotherhood supporters clashed with police across the country in defiance of a widening state crackdown on the pro-Morsi groups.
Egyptians go to the polls Jan. 14 and 15 for a national referendum on a draft constitution, which lacks the Islamist-inspired provisions of the constitution approved while Morsi was still in office and restricts the formation of political parties based on religion.
Ihab Azmy, a 36-year-old Coptic Christian who owns a small printing house in Cairo, told Catholic News Service he planned to vote “yes” for the new draft constitution, and he expected most other Egyptians would do the same.
“Before being a Christian, I am an Egyptian,” said Azmy, who was preparing for Orthodox Christmas with “special prayers, and fasting” at an 11th-century church in a historically Christian part of Egypt’s capital.
He said he anticipated more violence at this troubled time in his country, but that he was confident peace would prevail “someday, but when I do not know.”
“We are used to this type of (violent) actions and always say that our churches are in our hearts. If they burn them, we will build them again, hand in hand with our Muslim brothers,” he said.
Coptic Orthodox make up most of Egypt’s Christian minority, which represents about 10 percent of the North African country’s nearly 85 million people.