WASHINGTON – Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi met on Wednesday with a group of leading evangelical Christian activists from the United States at his office in Cairo, where they discussed the fight against ISIS, the prospects for peace between Israel and the Arab world and the situation of Christians in Egypt and elsewhere in the region.
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The meeting, the first of its kind, lasted for almost three hours and signaled the Egyptian president's interest in forging a close relationship with one of the largest and most influential religious denominations in the United States.
The meeting was initiated by Joel Rosenberg, an evangelical activist and author who lives in Jerusalem. Rosenberg participated in a meeting that Sissi held earlier this year in Washington, D.C., with experts on the Middle East, leaders of Jewish organizations and former senior U.S. government officials. Following that meeting, he discussed with officials in the Egyptian president's close circle the idea of arranging a meeting for him with Evangelical leaders, noting that no such meeting has taken place in recent history.
Sissi accepted the idea, and on Wednesday, the 12-member group arrived to meet him at the Presidential Palace in Cairo. According to Rosenberg, who spoke with Haaretz after the meeting, "it was supposed to last an hour, but lasted almost three." Egypt's intelligence chief, General Khaled Fawzy, and the president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, Dr. Andrea Zaki, also attended the discussion.
Sissi opened the meeting by expressing his condolences to the American people following Tuesday's terror attack in New York. He added that Egypt and the U.S. are partners in the fight against terrorism and extremism, and spoke about Egypt's battle against Islamist terror organizations in the Sinai Peninsula.
Rosenberg added that Sissi told the group that he wants to "build on the legacy of President Anwar Sadat," the Egyptian leader who signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1978, and paid for it with his life. "The president explained to us that Egypt has learned a lot over the years on how to make and maintain peace, and because it has a leadership role in the Arab world, it can help others move towards peace, based on its unique experience."
According to Rosenberg, Sissi told the group that he remembers being impressed, as a young man, with Sadat's determination to sign a peace agreement with Israel. "My sense after the conversation was that after a rough start, he now has more confidence in his stability and position, to start working more on regional issues," Rosenberg told Haaretz.
With regards to the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations that the Trump administration is trying to renew, Rosenberg said that Sissi "didn't go into tactics and specifics," but expressed his support for that effort. Over the last year, Sissi has stated a number of times that Egypt believes an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord could have a positive influence on the entire Middle East, and has encouraged the Trump administration to pursue such a deal.
Egypt played an important role in forging the recent reconciliation deal between the two leading Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, an issue that naturally came up during the meeting with the evangelical group. "I think that with a different leader, everyone in the room would have been very uncomfortable with discussing this reconciliation deal," Rosenberg said. "But with him, people felt like they should give him some space and consideration to lead this process. It's OK to be skeptical, but let's not be cynical - let's give the man some credit and see what he can do in a very difficult situation."
The evangelical community in the United States is considered very supportive of Israel, and over the last two decades, Israeli right-wing politicians and organizations have created significant partnerships with Evangelical Christian groups. A number of the participants in the meeting on Wednesday are members of President Trump's Evangelical Advisory Council, and Rosenberg is considered close to Vice President Mike Pence. There are more than 60 million evangelical Christians in the United States, and more than 600 million worldwide.
At some point during his conversation with the evangelical leaders, Sissi asked his aides to organize a meeting for the group with Jehan Sadat, the late president's widow. "They called her and asked if she would be willing to meet us, and she said - yes, they are invited for tea at 4:00. So right after the meeting with the president, we all went to her house in Cairo. She was fascinating. She told us about the night her husband first told her he was planning to go to Jerusalem and give a speech at the Knesset about the chance for peace."
According to Rosenberg, Sadat also told the group about "her memories from meeting Israeli leaders like Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres and Ezer Weizman. We were truly humbled to spend time with her and hear these stories."
Rosenberg, who was born to a Jewish father, told Haaretz that he was surprised at the level of interest expressed by the Egyptians in the delegation. "For the leader of Egypt to invite a Christian group to sit with him, discuss what he's doing, talk about some of the difficult issues, that's very impressive. I was hoping we could get ten minutes with him, and eventually we got almost three hours. From our side, the important thing was to show our appreciation for his fight against terrorism and extremism, for his commitment to peace and security ties with Israel, and for saving Egypt from the darkness of the Muslim Brotherhood."