Egypt's interim president on Sunday made a rare visit to the Coptic pope ahead of this week's Orthodox Christmas celebrations, underlining efforts by the military-backed government to project an image of inclusion ahead of a crucial referendum later this month.
highly symbolic visit to Pope Tawadros II at the papal seat at Cairo's
St. Mark's Cathedral by Adly Mansour was the first such visit since
socialist leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser attended the cathedral's
consecration ceremony more than 40 years ago.
underlined the secular outlook of the military-installed government and
signals a dramatic departure from the sectarian rhetoric of some of the
more radical allies of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi during his one
year in power and the tension and distrust that defined their relations
St. Mark's Cathedral was attacked by a mob in April last year, an
event that heightened Christians' concern over Morsi's rule and laid
bare their vulnerability. Morsi quickly condemned the violence, saying
attacking the cathedral was like attacking him personally.
But, in an
unprecedented direct criticism, Pope Tawadros accused him of failing to
protect the cathedral.
It was the first ever attack on the papal seat of
the Egyptian Orthodox church.
Morsi, who had consistently
maintained that he was president for all Egyptians, was ousted by a
popularly backed coup on July 3 and is now on trial on charges that
carry the death sentence.
"The visit will send a signal that
things are very different from Morsi's days," said Egypt expert Michael
W. Hanna of the New York-based Century Foundation. "It's a different
style and is likely to have a positive impact on the Copts," said Hanna,
who contends that this month's vote could witness a change in the
traditionally low turnout by Christian voters.
constitution Egyptians will vote on later this month in a nationwide
referendum enshrines equality between all Egyptians and instructs the
next parliament to legislate a new law that will facilitate the
construction and upkeep of churches.
The post-Morsi administration hopes
the draft, a heavily amended version of an Islamist-tilted charter
adopted under Morsi in 2012, will receive a comfortable "yes" majority
in the Jan. 14-15 referendum to enshrine the legitimacy of the regime
and allow it to move confidently to the next step of its political
transition plan: presidential and parliamentary elections.
Christians account for some 10 percent of the nation's 90 million
people. Mostly members of the Orthodox church, one of Christendom's
oldest, they long have complained of discrimination by the nation's
They have heavily invested in the anti-Morsi
movement in the hope of gaining equal rights with their Muslim
compatriots after his removal.
A large Christian turnout in this
month's referendum will be vastly helpful in gaining the comfortable
"yes" vote, especially in parts of southern Egypt where Christians
comprise as much as 35 percent of the population and Islamists loyal to
Morsi wield vast influence.
Mansour's Sunday visit may not have been
designed to canvass Christian "yes" votes, but it will go a long way in
comforting members of the minority about their future.
is an expression of the appreciation by the Egyptian state of its
Christian citizens who have offered a great deal while standing side by
side with their Muslim brethren for the nation's glory," said
presidential spokesman Ehab Badawi.
Morsi, a longtime leader of
the Muslim Brotherhood, complained in a public speech just days before
his ouster that leaders of the church came to see him wearing insincere
smiles, and accused them of being unnecessarily afraid of Islamist rule.
Morsi's Islamist allies adopted sectarian rhetoric and charged that
Christians were key instigators of street protests against Morsi's rule.
his part, Pope Tawadros rejecting the 2012 constitution adopted that,
in his view, was discriminatory and compromised the human rights of
Egyptians. The Coptic pontiff, enthroned in late 2012, has publicly
endorsed the coup.
In August, Morsi supporters destroyed, looted
or burned dozens of churches and church-linked facilities across Egypt.
Christian homes and businesses also were attacked. The wave of
anti-Christian violence followed the breakup of two sit-in protests by
Morsi supporters by security forces in an operation that killed
Some Christians complain that security forces had expected the
attacks but failed to take measures to prevent them or to defend them
and that work has yet to begin on the reconstruction of the destroyed
churches nearly five months after the attacks.