(Cairo, Egypt) — It’s impossible to overstate how historic this is: a pious Sunni Muslim Arab President builds the largest church in the Middle East and gives it as a Christmas present to the Christians of his country.
Can you remember the last time this happened? Neither can I.
Yet this is precisely what happened last night — the eve of Eastern Christmas — as the “Nativity of the Christ Cathedral” was formally opened and inaugurated on live national television by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II in the country’s new administrative capital city, located about 28 miles east of Cairo.
I had the joy of witnessing this game-changing moment first-hand, alongside the Delegation of fifteen-other American Evangelical leaders that President Sisi asked us to bring, and it moved me to my core. At numerous points I found myself quite emotional at seeing this event unfold and reflecting upon how much progress Egypt has made in just a few years.
• The economy is now growing at over 5% annually.
• The country is vastly safer than it was during the so-called Arab Spring.
• Tourism is rebounding.
• Inflation and unemployment are dropping.
• And overall Muslims and Christians are living peacefully together, despite two revolutions that almost tipped into full-blown civil war, and a wave of terrorist attacks against Christians and their church buildings here.
Do enormous religious, social and economic challenges in Egypt remain? Absolutely. But every single one of the dozens of senior Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Protestant leaders we met with told us they feel so encouraged by the progress and forward momentum they’re seeing and experiencing.
To our astonishment, the Delegation and I were also invited by President Sisi to attend the inauguration of the massive new mosque — one of the largest in the world — located just a few miles away from the cathedral. We didn’t know until the night before that we would be invited, and were deeply encouraged that Pope Tawadros attended as a VIP guest (at Sisi’s side), as did Dr. Andrea Zaki, head of Egypt’s two million Protestant Evangelicals.
Joining in all the festivities were Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and many senior Muslim clerics and leaders from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere in the region.
All of it was broadcast live on Egyptian TV. All evening, Egyptians watched Christians and Muslims singing together, walking together, laughing and conversing together, and visiting each other’s holy places. It was a beautiful picture of what people here want the “New Egypt” to be.
Soon, I will share more on our Delegation’s work and what we’ve been learning. For now, I just wanted to share with you the remarkable story of the opening of this enormous new church in the heart of the world’s largest Arab Muslim country. And the powerfully positive message of religious freedom and tolerance that it sent not only to 100 million Egyptians but to people and leaders throughout the Muslim world.
For us and our Egyptian Christian brothers and sisters, it has been a very Merry Christmas, indeed!