While “January 6” has, since 2021, been deemed a significant date for America—in the context of the Capitol riot, which is of far more significance to some than others—that date has long been important for millions of Orthodox Christians around the world, as it is the date of “Christmas Eve” (per the older Julian calendar), which is celebrated in church.
During this last January 6, 2022, two things happened that well capture the place of Christianity (Coptic Orthodoxy) in Egypt, one of the first nations to embrace and champion the faith (until the seventh century Islamic conquest, when it went on to become a minority and persecuted faith).
First, during the Nativity Mass conducted by Coptic Pope Tawadros II inside one of Egypt’s largest cathedrals in Cairo this last January 6, President al-Sisi arrived to congratulate the Christians of his nation and speak of Egyptian “solidarity,” irrespective of religion.
Al-Sisi is famous for engaging in this sort of gesture and rhetoric, which the Copts tend to appreciate. After all, the last time an Egyptian president behaved in the same manner—entering and congratulating the Christians on Christmas Eve inside their cathedral—was 1954 (President Muhammad Naguib). Moreover, every year Islamic preachers in Egypt call on Muslims not to acknowledge the “infidel” holiday of Christmas (as this woman did this year).
Even so, while al-Sisi’s gesture was largely appreciated, some Copts found it somewhat misplaced and distasteful. Their position is well captured by the views of Coptic researcher Dioscorus Boles:
Last night, I watched, like millions of Copts from across the world, the Liturgy of Holy Nativity that was broadcast from the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity of Christ … which was officiated by Pope Tawadros II. And how embarrassing it was!
The church was full with Egypt’s political and military personnel, occupying the front seats, and in the back Muslims, men and woman, who were supporters of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Egypt’s President, all raising his pictures and banners hailing the secular ruler. Chaos reigned, with all chatting to each other, speaking on their mobiles, laughing and waiving at the cameras. Then the prayers got stopped by the appearance of President al-Sisi; Pope Tawadros II going out to receive him, and then the President and the Pope, followed by the bishops of the Church, go in, and everything was interrupted by al-Sisi delivering a speech in which he congratulated the Copts and emphasised the unity of Egypt’s two religions. Security forces filled the space and camera men roamed here and there each keen about registering the still photographs of every move of the President and his men. Then Pope Tawadros II read from script mentioning and thanking all who congratulated or visited him on the occasion from Egypt regime’s political and military echelon.
It was more like a political festival than a solemn religious one, celebrating the birth of the incarnated Son of God for the salvation of mankind from its sins.
In a word: the service lost its dignity, and was not more about Christ but about al-Sisi …
To be sure, many Copts feel the same way, while others insist that such concessions are a necessary evil, that the Copts, beginning with their pope, have little choice but to play the role of grateful and accommodating dhimmi, lest they risk offending their Muslim overlords, particularly one seen as sympathetic.
Be that as it may. The dichotomy I personally found interesting was much more subtle and unremarked upon and has to do with something else that occurred on Orthodox Christmas Eve, January 6, 2022. Even as the pope and president were publicly exchanging vows of good will, the walls of an ancient Coptic monastery, founded in 442 AD, came crumbling down—and continued crumbling into Orthodox Christmas Day itself, January 7 (video here)—due to governmental negligence concerning those Egyptian antiquities that just so happen to be distinctly Christian. The monastery’s abbot had repeatedly submitted requests to repair their dilapidated and ancient walls, but the Antiquities Department has yet to issue a permit. Even after the collapses of January 6-7, a “committee” did make a perfunctory appearance and submitted a report to Antiquities—though still no permit has been forthcoming.
One can, of course, mention any number of other, more urgent problems that the Copts suffer—from the continued dearth of and strong restrictions on building churches, to the abduction and forced conversion of Coptic girls, not to mention the continued exclusion of Copts from all high profile state posts—but the quiet collapse of the walls of an ancient Christian monastery is in many ways more emblematic of the slow and silent suffocation that lurks behind the walls of religious discrimination—or rather façade of religious solidarity.