A half-dozen members of President Trump’s evangelical advisory board met this week in Cairo with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, part of what participants said was a first meeting between Sissi and a group of American evangelicals.
The meeting is an extension of the shift in U.S. policy under Trump. Trump has hosted and praised Sissi — his April visit to the White House was the first by an Egyptian leader in eight years — while President Barack Obama refused to invite him because of concerns about human rights violations. Sissi is seen as more sympathetic to his country’s Christian minority than his predecessors.
About a dozen American evangelical leaders attended the meeting Wednesday at Egypt’s presidential palace. The gathering went on for three hours and touched on matters ranging from terrorism and education to pluralism and human rights, said Johnnie Moore, a California pastor and public affairs executive who participated and serves as a spokesman for Trump’s ad hoc board.
The gathering was covered by Israeli media and was on front pages in Cairo on Thursday. A Thursday news release by the government framed the meeting as reflecting “Egypt’s keenness to strengthen bridges of communication and understanding with various sectors of American society.”
Egypt has ancient Christian communities, including the Copts, who make up the vast majority of the country’s Christians. Protestants are, comparatively, relatively new to the area, with the first major presence coming in the 1800s. Egypt is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, and religious minorities — including Bahais, Shiites, Jews and atheists — report discrimination from the public and private sectors, according to recent international religious freedom reports by the U.S. State Department.
American evangelical attendees, according to a photo of the event, were Joel Rosenberg, an American writer who lives in Jerusalem; retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence in the second Bush administration; Family Research Council President Tony Perkins; San Diego pastor Jim Garlow; Florida pastor Mario Bramnick; Middle East commentator Michael Evans; communications executive Larry Ross; political activist Robert Vander Plaats; Campus Crusade for Christ Global Leadership Vice President Dela Adadevoh; former congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.); Egyptian American Atlanta pastor Michael Youssef; and Moore.
All are conservatives, and many work with advocacy groups. Bachmann, Evans, Perkins, Bramnick, Garlow and Moore serve as informal advisers to Trump.
Meeting with them were Sissi and Andrea Zaki, who leads the Protestant Community of Egypt. There are a few hundred thousand Protestants in Egypt, a country with a population of 95 million.
Sissi is considered more friendly to Christian Egyptians than his predecessor, and was the first president to attend a Christmas Mass of Egypt’s Coptic Christians in 2015. That was two years after he led the bloody military ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected leader. He has ordered his government to help resettle Christians who fled the Sinai Peninsula in fear of the Islamic State. But private and public discrimination against Christians continues in Egypt, as does the threat of violence from extremists.
While some praise Sissi as a U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism, human rights groups say he is a repressive dictator whose jails are filled with political prisoners, including dozens of journalists held without trial.
Trump has praised Sissi many times and said during Sissi’s visit this spring that the general “has done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”
Last week, Vice President Pence announced at a gathering of Christians in Washington, D.C., that he would be traveling at the president’s request to Egypt and Israel next month. The trip will highlight the persecutions of Christians and other religious minorities, Pence told the annual gala of the group In Defense of Christians.
Moore said the group visited in Cairo with Jehan Sadat, the widow of Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated in 1981, a few years after signing a peace accord with Israel. They also visited with Muslim scholars, he said.
Moore said there are about 60 evangelical groups in Egypt.
The first thing Sissi said to the group was a condolence for the deadly attack this week in Lower Manhattan, Moore said. He also vowed to protect churches.
“When terrorists destroyed churches, his government rebuilt them. He said this [destruction] will never happen again,” Moore said.
Asked if members of group raised the issue of human rights violations, Moore said they did and “were very satisfied” with Sissi’s answer.
“He said, ‘This country isn’t perfect. We have lots and lots of challenges. Please help us with our challenges,’” Moore recalled. Some in the group praised Sissi on the topic — noting his support of religious minorities.
“The right to live free and believe freely, it’s incredible,” Moore said one pastor told the president. Their conversation on the topic “was collegial.”