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Egypt's New Cathedral May Be a Big Target for ISIS, Coptic Christians Fear
By Jacob Wirtschafter and Mina Nader

CAIRO -- The biggest church in the Middle East opens Saturday, a landmark date in the 2,000-year-old history of Egypt's Coptic Christians. It also could prove to be a huge target for Islamic State militants.

Egyptians leaders will dedicate the cathedral, called the Nativity of Christ, on Coptic Christmas in the new capital now under construction 28 miles east of Cairo. The cathedral will seat 8,200 worshipers who may be vulnerable to attacks from Muslim extremists.

A spate of attacks last year against Coptic Christians, which comprise around 10% of Egypt's majority Muslim population, claimed more than 100 lives. Early last year, the Islamic State, or ISIS, said the community was among its "favorite prey." As recently as Friday, eight Coptic Christians were gunned down in an attack at a Cairo church, and ISIS claimed responsibility.

Many Coptic Christians fear their future, said Ramy Kamil, 32, who runs the Christian Maspero Youth Foundation, which was created after the 2011 massacre of 27 Coptic activists protesting the demolition of a church in northern Egypt.

"From bombing to indiscriminate firing to direct targeting by extremists, there is a state of anxiety in the community," Kamil said.

Poules Halim, a pastor and spokesman for the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, said the new cathedral shows how Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is reaffirming the Coptic Christans' standing in the country.

El-Sissi seized power in 2013 after the military he headed ousted President Mohammed Morsi, the country's first democratically elected leader, and banned Morsi's radical Muslim Brotherhood political organization. Morsi was imprisoned.

In 2016, Egypt's parliament eased restrictions on building churches and adopted other policies to allow Christianity.

"Our new cathedral is not a just a great place for Christian worship," Halim said. "It is an expression of the fact that Egypt seeks to consolidate citizenship for all Egyptians."

Egypt's Interior Ministry has deployed 230,000 security forces to protect the country's 2,626 churches to thwart terrorist incidents. "But it doesn't feel like that when you live next door to a church that has been attacked," said Sayed Riad, 48, a car salesman in Helwan, outside of Cairo.

Riad feared that ISIS could strike against Coptic Christians as they celebrate Christmas every Jan. 7, instead of Dec. 25, and the new cathedral is an obvious target. "We do not know what will happen on the holiday," he said.

Maged George, 56, a cosmetics manufacturer who sits on several executive Coptic church committees, is not deterred by ISIS threats.

"I will go to the Mass at the cathedral and send my children to pray there," George said, adding that the new building will "convey a positive message about our citizenship and partnership with fellow Egyptians."

Church officials haven't disclosed the cathedral's cost, but state media reported that the Egyptian government is spending more than $12 million.

The cathedral is characteristic of Coptic churches in Egypt, with twin bell towers 200 feet tall flanking the structure. People call the towers lighthouses, because they are illuminated at night like minarets on Muslim mosques.

Coptic leaders said they received thousands of requests from worshipers to attend Saturday's inauguration Mass, and each was closely vetted.

"The security procedures for attendance are very strict," George said.


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