Cairo: Egypt`s interim President on Satuday made a rare visit to the Coptic pope ahead of this week`s Orthodox Christmas celebrations, underlining efforts by the military-backed government to project an image of inclusion ahead of a crucial referendum later this month.
The highly symbolic visit to Pope Tawadros II at the papal seat at Cairo`s St Mark`s Cathedral by Adly Mansour was the first such visit since socialist leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser attended the cathedral`s consecration ceremony more than 40 years ago.
Mansour`s visit underlined the secular outlook of the military-installed government and signals a dramatic departure from the sectarian rhetoric of some of the more radical allies of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi during his one year in power and the tension and distrust that defined their relations with Christians.
St Mark`s Cathedral was attacked by a mob in April last year, an event that heightened Christians` concern over Morsi`s rule and laid bare their vulnerability. Morsi quickly condemned the violence, saying attacking the cathedral was like attacking him personally. But, in an unprecedented direct criticism, Pope Tawadros accused him of failing to protect the cathedral. It was the first ever attack on the papal seat of the Egyptian Orthodox church.
Morsi, who had consistently maintained that he was president for all Egyptians, was ousted by a popularly backed coup on July 3 and is now on trial on charges that carry the death sentence.
"The visit will send a signal that things are very different from Morsi`s days," said Egypt expert Michael W Hanna of the New York-based Century Foundation. "It`s a different style and is likely to have a positive impact on the Copts," said Hanna, who contends that this month`s vote could witness a change in the traditionally low turnout by Christian voters.
A draft constitution Egyptians will vote on later this month in a nationwide referendum enshrines equality between all Egyptians and instructs the next parliament to legislate a new law that will facilitate the construction and upkeep of churches.
The post-Morsi administration hopes the draft, a heavily amended version of an Islamist-tilted charter adopted under Morsi in 2012, will receive a comfortable "yes" majority in the January 14-15 referendum to enshrine the legitimacy of the regime and allow it to move confidently to the next step of its political transition plan: presidential and parliamentary elections.