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Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited the main Coptic Christian church on Tuesday night to attend the Christmas service, in a move dubbed by local media as a first in Egypt’s history.
In footage broadcast by Egyptian television, Sisi made a surprise visit to Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, wearing a red tie and dark suit and surrounded by security guards. He saluted Pope Tawadros II and stood next to him to make a brief speech in front of a jubilant crowd.
Egypt’s Muslims and Christians are celebrating the religious event and are “one entity” in the world’s eyes, Sisi told thousands of worshippers.
“Let no one say, ‘What kind of Egyptian are you?’” he said.
“It’s not right to call each other anything but ‘the Egyptians.’ We must only be Egyptians,” he added.
Former Egyptian presidents, including Hosni Mubarak and Mohammad Mursi, usually wished the pope a Merry Christmas over the phone. Sisi was the first to attend the religious service, according to Ahram Online.
His visit follows the shooting of two policemen guarding a Catholic church in the southern Egyptian city of Minya. Churches and Christian sites have come under attack since the revolution that ousted Mubarak in 2011.
“We will love each other for real, so that people may see,” Sisi said. “A happy year for your and all Egyptians!”
The Coptic Church celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7 of the Western calendar, almost two weeks after most Western denominations. Copts account to 90% of Egypt’s Christian population and 10% of the Egypt’s overall population.