“May the worship of God in the highest heaven ever be welcomed in the new cathedral, and may blessings and peace descend upon all people, whom God loves,” the pope’s message continued.
The church’s newly dedicated neighbor, Al-Fattah Al-Alim Mosque, is claimed to be the largest mosque in Egypt and the Middle East, with a capacity of over 17,000 people. Both were constructed over a period of about 18 months.
Christians make up about ten percent of Egypt’s 98 million people. The vast majority of these Christians are Coptic Orthodox, with roots dating back to the apostolic period.
The dedication event follows years of trouble for Christians in the region. The beheading of 20 Coptic Christians and another man in Libya was recorded on video and shocked the world when it was released in February 2015.
In December 2016, A bomb exploded at a chapel attached to St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, killing over 20 people.
In February 2017, the Islamic State group called for Egypt’s Christians to be targeted. Dozens of Christians were killed in Palm Sunday church bombings that year. Islamic militants have sometimes conducted deadly attacks on buses of Christians traveling to Christian sites.
Pope Francis alluded to these deaths in his message, saying “you have some martyrs who give strength to your faith. Thank you for your example.”
Legal regulations on new church construction and church repair have created a heavy burden on the region’s Christians. Middle East observers at the Project on Middle East Democracy suggested that despite the construction of the prominent cathedral, many of these issues are still unresolved.
In his message, Pope Francis gave separate greetings to the Egyptian government and to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who attended the ceremonies.
The inauguration ceremonies began at the complex’s convention center. Various artists performed Islamic chants and Christian hymns. A children’s choir sang about Egyptian unity amid religious difference, as did the popular singer Angham.
Pope Tawadros toured the mosque with President El-Sisi, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other local and international leaders.
“This is a day of joy as we see our beloved country write a new page in the history of civilization,” the Coptic pope said.
(Story continues below)
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“Today we celebrate an unprecedented occasion where the minarets of Al-Fattah Al-Alim Mosque are embracing those of the Nativity of the Christ Cathedral, opening a new horizon for our beloved country on this happy occasion, achieved through the Egyptian people’s donations and efforts with sincerity and love.”
“As an Egyptian citizen, I am happy to stand in the mosque to celebrate its opening with my Muslim brothers,” he continued, praising el-Sisi’s fulfillment of his promise to build the mosque and the cathedral.
“We pray for our unity to continue as the world witnesses such tolerance and love in our country, God bless you all, long live Egypt,” he said.
During the dedication of a plaque outside the church, Muslim cleric Sheikh Ahmed al Tayyeb of Al-Azhar Mosque, a leading Sunni institution, said the joint inauguration is “the embodiment of the soul of brotherhood and love.” He said Islamic law requires safeguarding Christian and Jewish houses of worship just as mosques are protected.
After entering the cathedral, el-Sisi said the occasion sends the message “that we will not allow anybody to come between us.” He voiced dislike for calling conflicts “sectarian strife,” because “Muslims and Christians in Egypt are one, and will stay one.”
He said the event “represents a tree of love which we have planted together, but this tree still needs attention and care so that its fruit reaches from Egypt to the whole world.”