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Egypt’s President Attends Coptic Christmas Mass Amid Tight Security

In a show of solidarity with Egypt’s embattled Christians, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi made a symbolic appearance Saturday at an Orthodox Christmas Mass in a new cathedral as tens of thousands of soldiers and police were deployed outside churches across the country.

The tight security was ordered in anticipation of possible attacks by Islamic militants on the Christian holy day.

‘‘We, with the grace of God, are offering a message of peace and love from here, not just to Egyptians or to the region, but to the entire world,’’ Sissi told a jubilant congregation while standing next to Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic pontiff.

‘‘I always say this and repeat it: Destruction, ruin, and killing will never be able to defeat goodness, construction, love, and peace. It’s impossible,’’ said Sissi, a Muslim. ‘‘Pay attention — you are our family. You are part of us. We are one, and no one will ever drive a wedge between us.’’

In Cairo and across much of the Muslim-majority country, soldiers in full combat gear joined the police in protecting churches, most of which are now equipped with metal detectors.

Worshippers undergo body searches at church entrances. Some churches have had their surrounding streets sealed off, with sidewalks barricaded to control pedestrian movement.

The tight security across Egypt is a precaution against possible attacks by Islamic militants who have specifically targeted Christians since December 2016, staging a series of bombings, killing about 100 people.

Orthodox Christians are the overwhelming majority of Egypt’s Christians, who account for about 10 percent of the population, or nearly 10 million. They celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7.

The new cathedral in which Mass was held has been named Christ’s Nativity and is in Egypt’s new administrative capital, a $45 billion, under-construction project some 28 miles east of Cairo. The Christmas Mass will consecrate the new cathedral and mark the first time in living memory that the liturgy is not held at St. Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of the Orthodox Church in central Cairo.

The new cathedral can house up to 9,000 worshippers and is touted as the largest in the Middle East.

Sissi arrived shortly after nightfall, as silver lights twinkled on the cathedral’s dome piercing the surrounding darkness. A general-turned-president, Sissi is viewed by most of Egypt’s Christians as their protector and ally in the face of Islamists. He led the military’s 2013 ouster of an Islamist president whose divisive rule alarmed many Christians fearful over their future in the country.

The cathedral’s bells tolled as Tawadros received Sissi outside the cathedral, and they walked inside together. Women ululated in jubilation, and many in the congregation waved Egyptian flags or threw white rose buds at the smiling president, who waved back and shook hands with some of them.

The consecration of the new cathedral attracted the attention of Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church who visited Egypt last year and spoke at length of the need for tolerance between followers of Islam and Christianity.


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