“Alftah al Alim” and “Milad el Masih” – A National Epic over the Land of Miracles
By Michel Audi
The Egyptian and international media have recently witnessed a great event in Egypt: the construction of the largest mosque and the largest cathedral in the new administrative capital in Egypt, located approximately 60 kilometers from Cairo.
This event, announced by the President of the Republic, Mr. Abdel Fattah Sisi, two years ago during his celebration of Christmas on 6 January 2017, is a unique event whereby the completion of the Alftah al-Alim Mosque and Milad el Masih Cathedral coincided during the celebration of Christmas on 6 January 2019.
The cathedral was built on an area of 8500 square meters, to accommodate the largest possible number worshippers, including the People’s Church, with a capacity of 1000 people, and the site of the new papal headquarters. The cathedral building has a capacity for 8,200 individuals and forms, along with the surrounding buildings, a strikingly beautiful display of beauty and appearance. The mosque complex sits on an area of 6000 square meters and accommodates about 17 thousand worshipers, both men and women.
During a time in which Egypt has witnessed many acts of violence and much sectarian strife, this is a unique event. Some Muslims and Christians view this event as an expression of national unity, of the Egyptian social fabric. On the other hand, there are many who see the event as a kind of “courtesy” to the Christians, an expression of the state’s interest in them.
Observers say, “through the building of the Cathedral, the president is flirting with the Christian community” who have been subjected to many threats and bloody attacks in recent years in a country where there are many restrictions on the building of churches. Meanwhile, mosques are built without complication.
Coptic Christians have been divided concerning this event. Some of them have seen the churches in Egypt as becoming a place of martyrs, a result of the terrorist acts inflicted against them by the failure of the state and its lack of seriousness in protecting Christians. Some, however, have chosen to see the cup as half-full, perceiving the building the of largest church in the Middle East, within the most populous Arab-Islamic country, as an important step in helping Christians remain in their native land despite the persecution to which they are often subjected.
Sisi’s interest in building houses of worship, while ignoring the construction of new hospitals or educational institutions in a country already full of mosques and churches, has also been criticized. Expressions of national unity do not require the building of houses of worship so as much as the need for just conditions and equal rights for all citizens and residents of the country, with dignified employment and the renunciation of violence.
Theological Reflections and Missional Implications
It is not wrong to build houses of worship, especially in a country full of believers who long to worship God in places allotted for it. We see God declaring in scripture the importance of places of worship, first in the Old Testament with detailed instructions regarding the tabernacle and temple. In addition, throughout Christian history there is great significance to the place of worship where followers of Christ meet. We do not deny the missionary role of the Church as a lighthouse within society.
Mosques are places of worship for the Muslim community, a sanctuary and house of God. We dare not underestimate their importance in the lives of our Muslim neighbors. But, let us approach this topic in light of the heart of God as revealed to us in scripture.
The question arising here is whether Christ was ever interested in the grandeur of a specific place and the construction of great buildings; or, was he most interested in the human spiritual and material need for healing, repentance, education, sustenance and shelter. The people of God’s world have priorities far more important than the construction grand buildings. State, Church, and Mosque need each to arrange their priorities, and not find themselves held in thrall the ostentatious displays of modern-day pharaohs. Here lies the prophetic voice of the church in arranging priorities that bring the good news to the communities.