Holding hands with her beautifully dressed 10-year-old granddaughter, Bahigua exited the Abbasiya Coptic Cathedral on Saturday evening around midnight, after having taken part in Easter Mass headed by Pope Tawdoros II.
Bahigua said that the whole mood was “really joyful; people are happy; the Pope looked clearly happy; he must have come from his afternoon visit with [presidential runner and former army chief Abdel-Fattah] El-Sisi.”
In her early 70s, Bahigua said that she, too, “is really happy to have lived to see the day when our isolation and intimidation as Copts is coming to an end. I am hoping that Christine [her grand-daughter] will see the good days from when I was her age, when the strong men of this country found it normal to share our feasts and when our faith was not something we were punished for.”
For Bahuiga, El-Sisi “is not just a presidential runner."
"He's the man who saved this country from full division between those who belonged to Egypt and those who didn't belong to Egypt – the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical and terrorist groups.”
El-Sisi, said Bahigua, is a good man. “As a Muslim, he is religious, but he also, as a good religious man should, respects the rights of others to be religious and to worship freely. I prayed for his life and for his safety – we were on the border of a disaster and with the help of the hand of the Lord, El-Sisi intervened to save us all, not just as Christians but as Egyptians”.
In his thank you remarks in the middle of Easter Mass, Pope Tawdoros first expressed gratitude for the visit of El-Sisi’s only presidential contender, Hamdeen Sabahi, who was present at the mass – but who received very little and clearly not very warm applause, which was not much different than the reception offered to an envoy sent on behalf of Ahmed Shafiq, who finished second behind Mohamed Morsi in the 2012 elections and is now living in effective exile in the United Arab Emirates.
As the Coptic Patriarch, however, started to make a reference to El-Sisi's visit to the cathedral on Saturday afternoon, the whole cathedral shook with such intense and long applause that the Pope had to wait nearly two minutes for it to end – longer applause than was given to the mention of El-Sisi during Christmas mass at the same cathedral.
“Well, it is only natural that we support El-Sisi and that we want him to be president and that we love him. He is the one who chose to act against the Muslim Brotherhood, who were clearly assembled with all the terrorists who hated Christians – with some of them openly suggesting that they would prefer for us to go away and for Egypt to be only a Muslim country,” said Hana, an engineer in her late 20s, as she exited from Mar Girgis Coptic Orthodox Church on Easter Sunday.
“As Christians, we know very well that we will never have a Christian president because we are a minority, in terms of numbers, and we accept this. But what we cannot accept is to have terrorists ruling the country. We accept the rule of Muslims, good Muslims, not Islamist – radical and terrorist,” she added.
To judge by the applause offered by the worshipers at the Coptic Cathedral during Easter Mass, it was essentially those “good Muslim men” that Hana referred to that got the warmest show of Coptic affinity.
Along with El-Sisi, worshipers at the Coptic Cathedral applauded references to Muslim clergyman Mazhar Shahin, judges Ahmed El-Zind and Tahani El-Gebali and TV anchor Tawfik Okasha.
Leader of the Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party Mohamed Aboul-Ghar got much more applause on the eve of that feast than Emad Gad, who had recently resigned from the party over its hesitation to openly announce support for El-Sisi against Sabahi.
For Bishoi, 18, who was eating ice cream with friends in Heliopolis on the morning of Easter Sunday, this attitude is “perfectly normal”.
“As Christians, we felt threatened during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood – and it is not just about our fears before they made it to power or about the hostile statements that some of them made against us. It is about the attack on the cathedral by Morsi's supporters. That was shocking. My grandfather was in tears on that day [April 2013] and I clearly remember him saying he wished he'd died before seeing this happen in Egypt. Well, I am glad he did not die and that he lived to see a better day.”
In April 2013, the Abbasiya Coptic Cathedral was besieged with violence when assailants attacked a funeral for Copts who had been killed in earlier sectarian violence in a north Cairo district.
But is it really a better day or does it just seem to be so – at least on the official level? For Ragheb, a follower of the Evangelical Church, it is “certainly a better day – we know that anti-Christian sentiment has a long way to go before it can be eradicated, given that it has been around for decades and that there is so much to do before we can get rid of it.”
According to Ragheb, however, “it remains positive that the state is showing respect to Christian citizens and that the next president is making an effort to go to church on Easter, given that Easter is a sensitive occasion.”
Easter, which is believed to commemorate Christ's resurrection, is incompatible with the Muslim creed, which states that Christ wasn't crucified.
Interim president Adly Mansour, who visited Pope Tawdoros on Christmas, confined his Easter greetings to the delegation of an envoy, as did other top statesman. Indeed, when ousted president Hosni Mubarak aimed to appease Copts, he made Christmas an official holiday and not Easter – the more significant Coptic feast.
Mina Thabet, a Coptic activist, argued that today “we have the beginning of the state's recognition that it needs to give more attention to Copts – if only in the pursuit of our votes in elections.”
Ishak Ibrahim, of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said that it was this “newfound awareness of the rights of Copts” that prompted the 50-member body tasked with amending Egypt's constitution last year to create an anti-discrimination committee and also to push for a new law to be adopted regarding construction and repair of churches across the country – steps towards ending centuries of anti-Christian bias.
Ragheb is convinced that the state's ability to implement such steps will always depend on the will of “good Muslim men” who genuinely believe in the right of their Christian compatriots to worship freely and be treated as real – and not unwanted – citizens.
“We are praying and we hope God will listen to our prayers," he said.