President Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s actions on fighting violent extremism, protecting religious freedom and promoting peaceful coexistence between religious communities have been courageous, substantive and increasingly effective, and the American people deserve to know that where once a group of dangerous fanatics ruled, we now have a great friend and faithful ally in Egypt. Some in the press certainly aren’t telling them.
While Radical Islamists — like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State and those ruling Iran — continue to support terrorism and promote enmity between religions, the leader of the Arab world’s most populous country is charting a path toward modernity and tolerance that is giving great hope to the country’s religious minorities which have too often been subject to discrimination or worse by extremists.
Take, for instance, the irony that on the very same evening that 60 Minutes aired a segment trying to paint the Egyptian president as one of the cruelest despots ever to reign in this part of the world, Mr. el-Sisi was actually inaugurating the largest Christian church ever built in the Middle East.
In fact, the idea for building the church was actually Mr. el-Sisi’s to begin with. In the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring and the horrific terrorist attacks by Islamists targeting vulnerable Christian communities, the Egyptian President responded in 2015 by increasing security around Christian houses of worship and by doing something of great symbolic importance that no other Egyptian leader had done before him — he attended a Christmas Eve service in Cairo alongside the Coptic Orthodox Pope.
Keep in mind, that Muslim Brotherhood extremists who briefly ran Egypt (and were in the process of running it into the ground), regularly issued fatwas declaring it immoral for Muslims to even wish Christians a Merry Christmas. It was, therefore, a profound statement for Mr. el-Sisi, a pious Muslim, to stand with the Coptic Orthodox Pope in solidarity as a fellow Egyptian.
Yet, this was just the beginning. Mr. el-Sisi also promised when he came to power that his government would rebuild every single church damaged or destroyed by the extremists — a promise he has kept.
Just stop and think about this: the most radical of the Islamists wanted to eradicate Christianity from the Middle East, something ISIS openly stated when they notoriously beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya in 2015. The Egyptian President, in turn, responded to these threats by building the biggest church that anyone had ever seen in the region, and then giving it as a gift to the 15 million Christians of Egypt, and doing so the eve of Eastern Christmas this last weekend.
This wasn’t done in a corner. The inauguration of the “Nativity of the Christ Cathedral” was broadcast live on national television. Standing at Mr. el-Sisi’s side was the Coptic Orthodox Pope and the Grand Imam of the world’s most iconic Islamic institution of higher learning, Al-Azhar. We were fortunate to attend as hosts of a Delegation of American Evangelical leaders.
Moments before the opening of the Cathedral, the Grand Imam, standing alongside of the Pope and the President, told the entire nation on live television that Islamic Law actually teaches that Christian and Jewish houses of worship should be given the same treatment as mosques. He then wished the President and the Coptic Pope a “Merry Christmas.”
It reminded us of the words written many centuries ago in a document accepted as authoritative by nearly all the Muslims in the world, “The Covenant Between the Prophet and the Christian World.” That document says that “if Christians seek the help and assistance of Muslims in order to repair their churches or convents or to arrange matters pertaining to their affairs and religion, Muslims must help and support them.”
The opening of the Cathedral in Cairo’s new capital is one of many such actions taken by this Egyptian president. Consider the fact that in the past 150 years only 2,500 churches were ever legally authorized to operate by the Egyptian government. Yet in the past year-and-a-half alone, under a new church building law signed by President el-Sisi, more than 500 new churches have been granted permits to operate. What’s more, an additional 5,000 churches have been granted permission to lawfully hold worship services even while they go through the permitting process.
Our Delegation this past week met at length with some three dozen senior Egyptian Christian leaders, Orthodox and Protestant. They all readily acknowledged that many challenges remain to be solved in their country. But to a person they spoke of their deep admiration for and appreciation of Mr. el-Sisi. They and the people they shepherd feel safer from the extremists. They see their religious freedoms being defended and advanced. They see a spirit of tolerance and peaceful coexistence being modeled from the top.
In short, they see in Mr. el-Sisi a leader of bold and decisive action who is also a friend of the regions’ Christians precisely so because he is such a pious Muslim.
How sad and how inexcusable that 60 Minutes would not tell the American people this part of the story.