Jeffrey Feltman serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.
Over the course of my career as a United States diplomat, I’ve spent many a Christmas holiday in countries across the Middle East. From Beirut to Tunis, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Baha’is, and peoples of all religions, celebrate and acknowledge the importance of faith, a hope for the future, and goodwill toward all. Yet, something I saw a few days ago in Cairo reminded me of another important tenant of the season: tolerance.
I had the privilege of joining our Ambassador Anne Patterson in attending two Christmas services on January 6. First, we went to a moving celebration at the Evangelical Presbyterian Church near Tahrir Square. Then, in the evening, we attended a Coptic Christmas ceremony at Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral.
In both churches, there were celebrations of the joy of the season alongside somber moments of remembrance for those who lost their lives over the past year, including in the tragic and terrible terrorist attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria one year ago, as well as the unrest that followed. In the Presbyterian service, worshipers gave a standing ovation to a young man blinded in the unrest.
As I looked around the two churches, I was struck by Egypt’s great religious and political diversity. At a time when the intersection of religion and politics is on the minds of many, it was encouraging to see many Muslims from across the political spectrum attend these services to show their respect for their fellow citizens. Just as Egyptians came together in a spirit of tolerance and unity last January in Tahrir Square, so, too, were the attendees of these Christmas celebrations affirming a respect for the principles of religious freedom that are essential to a democratic system. President Obama, in a statement a few days ago, rightly pointed out that, “freedom of religion, and the protection of people of all faiths, and the ability to worship as you choose are critical to a peaceful, inclusive, and thriving society.”
Egypt’s mainstream political parties have promised to respect the rights of religious minorities to worship freely. As Egypt’s newly-elected lower house of parliament prepares to be seated for the first time this month, these parties will soon be in a position to ensure these promises come to fruition.
In this same spirit of tolerance, I spent my time this Christmas in Cairo speaking to Egyptian leaders and civil society activists about the importance of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as a pillar of any healthy democracy. NGOs, in Egypt and around the world, play an integral role in ensuring government accountability, providing much-needed services to needy communities, and offering protections for our most fundamental rights.
I was inspired by the commitment to unity, tolerance, and mutual respect evident at the Christmas services I attended. I hope this same spirit will be evident as Egyptians launch their new democratic parliament, write their new constitution, find ways to strengthen and protect equal rights for all citizens, and build a more prosperous nation.
Cross-posted from DipNote.