Cairo - Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi 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.
Abdel Fattah Al Sissi, has made sectarian harmony a cornerstone of his rule, fighting Islamic militancy while advocating equality between the overwhelming Muslim majority and Christians.
Coptic Christians make up an estimated 10 percent of Egypt's nearly 100 million people and have long complained of discrimination under laws that favour Muslims.
Copts make 10 %of Egypt population
They have also increasingly been targeted in recent years by Islamist militants including Daesh, which is waging an insurgency in the north of the remote Sinai Peninsula.
The ceremony, attended by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and a host of Arab dignitaries, included recorded video messages of support from the region's top Christian clerics as well as Pope Francis.
Speaking in Italian, Pope Francis said: "With joy I greet all of you on the joyful occasion of the dedication of the new Cathedral of the Nativity, built in the new administrative capital. May the prince of peace give to Egypt, the Middle East and the whole world the gift of peace and prosperity."
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. Adding "But we still have to protect the tree of love we planted here together today because seditions never end."
An important moment in our history
"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.
U.S. 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 Sissi 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 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 Al Azhar Mosque, the world's primary seat of learning for Sunni Muslims, echoed Al Sissi's sentiments in comments also made at the cathedral. The two places of worship, he said, stand as a symbol in the face of "attempts to undermine the country's stability and sectarian seditions.
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.
The inauguration ceremony, which ended with a display of fireworks, took on added significance because it fell on Christmas Eve for Egypt's predominantly Coptic Orthodox Christians, and just hours after a police bomb squad major was killed trying to defuse an explosive device near a Cairo church. Al Sissi and participants observed a minute of silence in memory of the fallen policeman.
The late Saturday blast came a little more than a week after a roadside bomb hit a tourist bus near the Giza Pyramids, killing three Vietnamese tourists and their Egyptian driver. It likely will compel authorities to further tighten security around churches ahead of the Coptic Orthodox Christmas. Already, armed policemen guard churches and security guards check the identity of visitors. Metal detectors have also been set up outside churches.