The "Great St Antony Church", right, and the Great mosque, left, are illuminated in Cairo, Egypt, Jan 6, 2019. (AMR NABIL / AP)
CAIRO — President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi inaugurated Egypt's largest church and mosque in the New Administrative Capital on Sunday, the eve of Coptic Christmas, in a message of tolerance in the predominantly Muslim country.
Copts, the largest Christian minority in the Middle East, were due hold a midnight mass in the Cathedral of the Nativity, billed by the government as the Middle East's largest church, a few hours after the inauguration.
Coptic Christians make up an estimated 10 percent of Egypt's nearly 100 million people and have long complained of discrimination under laws that favor Muslims
Coptic Christians make up an estimated 10 percent of Egypt's nearly 100 million people and have long complained of discrimination under laws that favor Muslims.
They have also increasingly been targeted in recent years by Islamist militants including Islamic State, which is waging an insurgency in the north of the remote Sinai Peninsula.
Foreign dignitaries and officials including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Arab League Chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit flanked Sisi at the opening, state television showed.
Angham, a prominent local singer, sang for Muslim-Christian coexistence as a display of fireworks lit the skies over the two houses of worship.
"This is an important moment in our history," Sisi said in a speech as he opened the cathedral. "We are one and we will remain one," he added, referring to Egyptian Christians and Muslims.
"On this day we see you have fulfilled this promise and here we are witnessing a great opening on this grand occasion," the head of the Coptic church Pope Tawadros II said. He will preside over midnight mass later in the evening with Sisi in attendance.
Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria leads mass at the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ in Egypt's New Administrative Capital on Jan 6, 2019. (MOHANMED EL-SHAHED / AFP)
US President Donald Trump also praised the opening of the church and the mosque.
"Excited to see our friends in Egypt opening the biggest Cathedral in the Middle East. President Al-Sisi is moving his country to a more inclusive future," Trump tweeted on Sunday.
The Cathedral of the Nativity, adorned with Coptic icons, can accommodate more than 8,000 worshippers while the al-Fattah al-Aleem Mosque can hold nearly double the number. Both are located in the new administrative capital, a major development located some 45 km east of Cairo.
Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of the al-Azhar Mosque, said Islam obliges Muslims to safeguard and defend houses of worship, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish.
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, right, speaks as Coptic Pope Tawadros II listens during the inauguration of the massive Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ in Egypt's New Administrative Capital, 45 kilometres East of Cairo, on Jan 6, 2019. (MOHAMED EL-SHAHED / AFP)
Contractors have been clearing debris from the perimeter of the cathedral in the last two weeks in preparation for its grand opening.
The new Egyptian capital, announced in March 2015, is intended partly to reduce crowding in Cairo but will also be home to government ministries and an airport. The government is expecting to begin moving to the new premises later this year.
A handout made available by the Palestinian Authority's press office Jan 6, 2019, shows Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, 2nd left, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, 3rd left, attending the opening ceremony of the Mosque of Al-Fattah Al-Aleem and the inauguration of the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ in Egypt's New Administrative Capital, 45 kilometres east of Cairo. (PHOTO / AFP)
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