Egypt inaugurated a massive cathedral under heavy security on Coptic Christmas Eve Sunday, a day after a deadly bomb blast near a church in the country where jihadists have repeatedly targeted Christians.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi observed a moment of silence after Saturday’s explosion on the eastern edge of Cairo killed a policeman who was trying to defuse the device and wounded two others.
Security was tight as Sisi officially opened the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital, 45 kilometres (28 miles) east of Cairo, ahead of Christmas mass.
Worshippers had to pass through three sets of metal detectors to access the event, while armoured vehicles and dozens of ambulances were stationed nearby.
Sisi gave a brief speech saying the simultaneous opening of the cathedral and the major Al-Fattah Al-Alim mosque nearby carried a message of unity.
“We are one and we will continue to be one,” he said.
“This moment is very important in our history.”
Egypt’s top Muslim cleric Ahmed al-Tayeb told those gathered that “if Islamic law requires Muslims to protect mosques, it equally requires Muslims to protect churches”.
The cathedral’s inauguration was hailed by US President Donald Trump, who wrote on Twitter that he was “excited to see our friends in Egypt opening the biggest Cathedral in the Middle East”.
“Sisi is moving his country to a more inclusive future,” Trump said.
Pope Francis extended greetings to Coptic Pope Tawadros II, saying in a video message that he “was able to give a true testimony of faith and charity, also in times of difficulties”.
Coptic Christians, who account for around 10 percent of Egypt’s population, have been hit by a string of attacks by the Islamic State group in recent years.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast on Saturday.
The bomb was hidden inside a bag that was placed on the rooftop of Al-Haq mosque near the Virgin Mary church in the Nasr City district of Cairo, religious officials and witnesses said.
– ‘Flagrant criminal act’ –
Massad Saad, the son of the prayer leader at Al-Haq mosque, told AFP he was inside the building when other worshippers noticed “a man going up to the roof carrying a bag” but when they followed him they found “two bags”.
“We informed the police,” Saad, a 35-year-old baker, said in a phone interview.
There was no immediate confirmation from officials.
Government newspaper Al-Ahram reported Sunday that a bomb had been placed in a bag on the roof of a building in Ezzbat al-Haggan, but it did not mention the church or the mosque.
On Sunday morning security forces were deployed around the neighbourhood keeping journalists at bay.
The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shawki Allam, denounced “the terrorist operation that targeted… the church”, on his official Facebook page.
He said “extremists” had planted “an explosive device on the roof of Al-Haq mosque… near the Virgin Mary church”.
Similarly, Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest institution of Sunni Islam, condemned the attack.
“The targeting of worship places and killing of innocents is a flagrant criminal act that violates teachings of all religions,” it said in a statement.
It also voiced its solidarity with state institutions against “terrorism” which it said sought to spoil Coptic celebrations.
– String of attacks –
Sisi often presents himself as a defender of Christians against extremists but activists and some analysts accuse the state of discriminating against them and not providing enough protection.
More than 100 Copts have been killed in jihadist attacks since December 2016.
IS claimed an assault in early November in which six Copts and one Anglican died in the central province of Minya.
The jihadists killed more than 40 people in twin church bombings in April 2017, and an IS gunman in December that year killed nine people in an attack on a church in a south Cairo suburb.
Hundreds of police and soldiers have also been killed in attacks.
In late December, three Vietnamese tourists and their Egyptian guide died when a roadside bomb hit their bus on the outskirts of Cairo.
The country has been under a state of emergency since April 2017.
In February the army launched a large-scale operation dubbed “Sinai 2018” to rid the Sinai Peninsula of jihadists after an attack on a mosque that killed more than 300 people.