Egypt Has Opened the Middle East’s Largest Church, & Opened a Door to the Baha’i
By Rev. Johnnie Moore
The words and views expressed below reflect that of the author, and do not necessarily represent ADL.
After travelling many thousands of miles, there I was sitting just outside of Cairo in the largest, newest Cathedral in the Middle East listening to the Coptic Pope perform a mass televised throughout the entire Arab world.
In order to understand the powerful emotions, I — and so many others — felt on that moment, one needs to only go back a few years ago to when ISIS militants rained terror across the Middle East. They decimated ancient Christian communities. They raped women, burned down churches, and they tried to wipe away their memory altogether by chipping the Christian crosses out of the tombstones in their cemeteries.
I know because I documented many of these atrocities when writing my book Defying ISIS: Preserving Christianity in the Place of Its Birth, and I continued to hear corroborating accounts as I travelled throughout the region providing whatever help I could to whomever I could. I told their stories because the common refrain I heard from victims was that they “felt forgotten” by the world.
In all, the message of the terrorists was crystal clear. They wanted to erase Christianity from the Middle East.
The Islamic State was particularly obsessed with the Middle East’s largest Christian community, Egypt’s Copts. The Coptic Church constitutes between 10% and 15% of the population of Egypt and traces their lineage all the way to St. Mark himself. This community was victim to ISIS’ most public assault on Christians in the region when they beheaded 21 of Copts on a beach in Libya under the banner of a video entitled “a message signed in blood to the nation of the cross.”
The Egyptian Christian community has continued to be the victim of relentless terrorist attacks from ISIS militants and by those inspired by them, including by offshoots of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. Those attacks have diminished in the last eighteen months due to strong Egyptian security measures, but the threats continue, especially in the more rural and least educated parts of the country, and sometimes attackers aren’t foiled soon enough.
All of this is why it was such a profound moment when the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, opened the Cathedral of the Nativity in Cairo’s new administrative capital on January 6, 2019, the eastern Christmas Eve. It was an event profoundly important to those who aim for a pluralistic Middle East which will respect the freedom of religion for all, including those who do not believe.
I will never forget hearing Muslim engineers and construction workers speaking emotionally about the joy of building this Christian church. One film played at the ceremony showed Muslim and Christian children laughing and playing with one another. Tears formed in the corners of my eyes.
Egypt’s president responded to those who believe Christians have no place in the Middle East by allowing the largest Christian church to be built in the most populated Arab country. El-Sisi first attended a Christmas Eve service in 2015, a move which sent shockwaves throughout Egypt and the broader Islamic world. It was at that service that he told the Coptic community of his intention of building a new Cathedral, as one of the first buildings to be constructed at the new capital. He fulfilled his promise on the Eve of Coptic Christmas, as he simultaneously opened a mosque in the new Egyptian capital. In each case, he was intentionally flanked by both the Coptic Pope and the Grand Sheikh of Egypt’s Al-Azhar university, the most important institution of higher learning in the Sunni world. The religious leaders each took the responsibility of praying a blessing upon another’s new house of worship.
Standing next to el-Sisi outside of the Cathedral, the Grand Sheikh said on live Egyptian television that every Christian and every Jewish house of worship deserved the same protection as every mosque in Egypt. He went even further the next day, in a meeting the next day with Nadine Maenza, my colleague from the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom. Sitting within the very walls of Al-Azhar, its leading authority also said that every member of the Baha’i community, Jehovah’s witnesses and others deserve their own houses of worship as well. He made it a point to say that these comments should be “taken on the record.”
While acts of solidarity must always be coupled with practical reform, one mustn’t discount the rapid pace and powerful significance of these events and the changes they potentially signal throughout the Middle East.
After all, every act of solidarity on behalf of someone another wants to stigmatize, marginalize or worse, is a dagger in the heart of hatred. That is how love kills hate.
Bigots love to isolate the victims of their hatred. That’s why we stand with those victims, march with those victims and speak with one voice alongside of those victims. It is a righteous act to stand alongside of those whom hate aims to isolate and to destroy.
About the author: Rev. Johnnie Moore is a businessperson and ordained member of the clergy. He is a Commissioner on the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom, appointed by the President of the United States, and he serves on the Anti-Defamation League’s Task Force on Middle East Minorities.
About ADL’s Task Force on Middle East Minorities: The mission of ADL’s Task Force on Middle East Minorities is to bring international attention to the human rights offenses committed against minority communities in the Middle East. The Task Force consists of regional and topical experts who serve as an advisory body to augment ADL’s work in protecting vulnerable minorities by identifying, elevating, and educating on emerging human rights issues in the Middle East.