Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, also known as the Abassia Cathedral, has not witnessed such a gesture since it was built in 1965, during the era of then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Egyptian President Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi “dropped in for a visit” at the cathedral on January 7, during the Coptic Christmas Mass, to honor the community and give a short political speech.
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Instead of talking about Muslims and Christians, Sissi declared that “all of Egypt is one hand” – that is, everyone is an Egyptian citizen – and won over their hearts.
Since Nasser’s visit to the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo 59 years ago, no Egyptian president has visited a house of worship – even though Egypt does not officially separate church and state. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this presidential gesture. The upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled to take place in March and April, also contributed to this show.
Sissi’s effort to extend his hand to the Christians bears a lot of significance as far as civil society in Egypt is concerned. While in Iraq and Syria the Christians are being persecuted and slaughtered by Islamic terrorist organizations, Egypt is trying to send a different message.
Not only Sissi has recently honored Christians. Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy of Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, crossed the border into the Gaza Strip and joined a delegation of Hamas leaders on a visit to the Church of Saint Porphyrius in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City to greet “our Christian brothers.”
As expected, photos in which Abu Marzouk can be seen alongside Santa Claus angered the radical Islamic organizations in Gaza. One of them, linked to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, published the pictures with the headline “Watch the Hamas delegation visiting in the Church of Porphyrius to greet the Christians, even though the Islamic scholars have forbidden it.”
It seems that in ISIS they have not internalized the Israeli slogan stating that “Hamas is ISIS.”
Gaza's 2,500 Christians were apparently not the only ones who celebrated Christmas. Journalists reported that many Muslim families bought Christmas trees this year (which can cost up to $90 each) and decorated their homes in order to “spread a little bit of joy after the tragedy of the war,” as one Gaza resident was quoted as saying.
But "joy" is very far from describing reality in Gaza. The bitter cold has made the lives of tens of thousands, left without homes because of the Israeli bombings, even worse. Schools have still not been repaired, and salaries in general have been frozen.
The chairman of the government committee on rehabilitating the Strip, Mohammad Mustafa, who is also deputy prime minister, presented a report last week on the rebuilding effort. The report states that most of the money promised for the reconstruction has yet to arrive. The $200 million that Qatar pledged as part of its total of $1 billion in aid has yet to be seen. The promised transfer of $75 million from the Gulf states has yet to be deposited, and only Japan has provided the $500,000 it promised for removing rubble.
The foreign ministers of Arab nations are scheduled to meet in Cairo on Thursday to discuss the reconstruction plan for Gaza, but locals there are already saying the conference will just be a matter of yet more talk without any real action.
The most burning and threatening problem is the payment of salaries. After a temporary solution was found in October – when Qatar transferred $1,200 for each of the 42,000 unpaid employees of the government in Gaza – the disagreement has once again heated up. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that he will not pay the salaries for as long as Israel freezes the transfer of the Palestinian tax money it collects on the behalf of the Palestinian Authority. Israel has been withholding the funds since the Palestinians applied for membership in the International Criminal Court at the end of last year.
But the Israeli freeze on the money could act as a double-edged sword, if it leads to a violent outburst in Gaza.
Hamas claims that Abbas has the money to pay the salaries, but he is avoiding doing so in order to force the rehiring of tens of thousands of PA government employees who were driven out of their jobs when Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007.
For its part, the PA, which so far had paid the salaries of its officials who had been sitting at home, is now demanding to return them to their jobs first. The PA’s position is that only if there is a need for them, the workers appointed by Hamas will continue to be employed – but the Islamist movement opposes this condition.
Last Friday, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri stressed that this dispute could very well bring about the end of the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah.
This verbal wrangling between Hamas and the PA does not present a practical solution to the workers’ troubles. Abbas is supposed to meet in Turkey with Meshal this week to try to solve the crisis with the help of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey has been providing funding to the Hamas regime in the Strip, even after the joint Palestinian government was established, but it is clear to Meshal that cooperation with Turkey could harm Hamas' efforts to restore its relations with Egypt.
Another possibility for Meshal is to return to the Iranian camp, but such a move means taking a “walk to Canossa,” which will demand that Hamas “repent its ways” concerning Syrian President Bashar Assad, and will also damage the Islamist group’s relations with Turkey.
The only logical way out for now for Hamas is to compromise with Abbas and continue with the process of rebuilding Gaza through the PA. But logic is not always the guiding principle in such circumstances. Maybe Santa Claus will help.