Pope Francis begins a peace mission to the Middle East with Egypt visit
Pope Francis’ two-day visit to Egypt on April 28-29 will be a significant interreligious and ecumenical event as well as a pastoral one: interreligious, as it aims to foster joint Christian-Muslim efforts for peace and the rejection of the use of the name of God to support violence and terrorism; ecumenical because it seeks to further deepen the growing friendship between the Catholic and Coptic churches; and pastoral, since it hopes to bring consolation and encouragement to the country’s tiny, hard-pressed Catholic community.
He will arrive in a country under a state of emergency declared by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi following terrorist attacks—claimed by ISIS—on the Coptic churches of Tanta and Alexandria on Palm Sunday that killed 44 believers and injured over 100. The Egyptian leader then ordered the army to maintain security in the cities and to protect places of worship.
Despite major security concerns, Egyptian authorities acceded to Francis’ wish to travel in a normal car, not a bulletproof one, during his sojourn in Cairo. The visit will be broadcast on national television and will be covered by some 1,000 journalists from many countries and 70 that accompany Francis on the plane from Rome.
Francis will deliver the first of five scheduled talks at a World Peace Conference hosted by Al-Azhar University, two-hours after arriving in Cairo. Shortly afterwards, he will address Egyptian authorities and the diplomatic corps.
“Peace be with you” was the message of the Risen Jesus to his disciples on the first Easter, and it is the message Francis will bring to the Muslim and Christian communities in Egypt.
There is much interest in how Francis will frame his peace message at the conference, particularly in relation to the ongoing terrorism that claims to find its justification in the Quran and what ways he will suggest for Christian and Muslim religious leaders to combat terrorism and work together for peace in Egypt and the Middle East.
Some observers fear his visit will be read as support for Mr. Sisi and his administration. Human rights advocates want Francis to affirm the importance of human rights in his talk to the Egypt authorities and raise the question of abuses by his government.
In this context, a senior diplomat with many years’ experience in Egypt, who requested anonymity because of his position, told America that it should be remembered that “el-Sisi has shown more respect for Christians than Morsi or Mubarak. [Mr. Sisi has] said that they should be considered as full citizens. He has attended in person the Christmas celebration at the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo. He went to visit the pope of Rome in 2014 and invited him to come to Egypt. The Christians appreciate all this.”
At the same time, the diplomat acknowledged that a “difficult” situation has been created by the treatment of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi by the armed forces (headed at the time by Mr. Sisi) in July 2013, following mass protests against the increasing extremism of his leadership. “The Muslim Brothers have not forgiven this, and so have not rallied to help Egypt in any way. They have been against the present regime from the beginning, and this has helped to create a climate of violence, mostly directed against the police and government forces and institutions but also against Christians (whom they see as supporting el-Sisi),” he said.This is the tinderbox situation Pope Francis will step into at 2 p.m. (local time) on Friday when he arrives at Cairo International Airport on his 18th foreign visit.
The logo for the visit, “Pope of peace in Egypt of peace,” expresses its aims, which Francis also spoke of in a video message on April 25 to the 90 million inhabitants of this majority Muslim country, 10 percent of whom are Christian.
“Peace be with you” was the message of the Risen Jesus to his disciples on the first Easter, and it is the message Francis will bring to the Muslim and Christian communities in this land, which in spite of serious internal political and social tensions and low-intensity conflict has managed over the past half-century—albeit with the use of force and even repression—to maintain a fragile social harmony and even to make peace with Israel.
Francis wishes to extend his peace message to the entire region of the Middle East, which has seen so much conflict for so many years, but especially since the U.S.-led coalition’s war in Iraq in March 2003.
That war, as the Holy See predicted, has resulted in disastrous consequences not only for several countries in the region and for Christian-Muslim relations but also for the minority Christian communities living there. It helped ignite the Arab Spring that led to disorder in Egypt and the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Libya.
The Argentine pope comes not only as a messenger of peace but also as a pilgrim to this land that gave refuge to the child Jesus, his mother Mary and St. Joseph and where the foundation of the country’s Christian church is associated with St. Mark the Evangelist, who was martyred in Alexandria in 63 C.E. Egypt then became a Christian nation (it remained so until the ninth century). Alexandria became an important theological center, and “the desert fathers” became the first models for the Christian monastic tradition.
Francis wishes to extend his peace message to the entire region of the Middle East, which has seen so much conflict for so many years.
The Coptic Orthodox Church (Coptic comes from the Arab and Greek word for “Egyptian”) came into existence after most Egyptian bishops for various reasons, not all of them theological, rejected the Council of Chalcedon’s teaching (451 C.E.) that Jesus, the son of God, is one person with two natures—divine and human—and were persecuted for this. After the Arab invasion in 641, the Copts slowly diminished in numbers and became a minority by the 13th century. Islamic rule was followed by periods of both persecution and relative freedom.
Today, the Copts are not only a significant minority in Egypt, they are in fact the largest Christian community in the Middle East. The church has diaspora communities in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Africa.
Besides the Coptic Orthodox there are also other Christian churches in Egypt: Greek Orthodox, Syrian and Armenian Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant and a Coptic Catholic community of some 272,000 faithful with six different rites. Francis will spend Saturday with these Catholics. He will celebrate Mass for 25,000 of them in a military air force stadium, have lunch with their bishops and before departing for Rome will meet 1,500 seminarians, clergy and religious in the sports field of the Catholic seminary.
Christians and Muslims in Egypt lived together in peace for 14 centuries, Pope Tawadros recalled in a recent interview. But over the past half-century the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt created new problems for the Coptic church, as Ronald Roberson, C.S.P., reports in his excellent book, The Eastern Christian Churches. In 1981, for example, following anti-Coptic outbursts by Muslim fundamentalists in the previous year, President Anwar Sadat placed Pope Shenouda III under house arrest in a desert monastery, an act that greatly disturbed Egyptian Christians. He regained his freedom in 1985.
The Argentine pope comes not only as a messenger of peace but also as a pilgrim to this land that gave refuge to the child Jesus.
Attacks against Copts by Islamic militants increased in 1997 and have continued sporadically since then, more recently by ISIS with the suicide bombing at St. Mark’s Coptic cathedral in December 2016 that killed 25, with attacks on Christians in the northern Sinai Peninsula last February and with April’s Palm Sunday bombings. The situation in the country remains tense.
The Holy See enjoyed positive relations with both Copts and Al-Azhar under St. John Paul II, the first pope to visit the country. He went there in the Jubilee Year 2000 to visit Mount Sinai but also paid courtesy visits to Pope Shenouda III and to Al-Azhar, and was very well received. The situation deteriorated under Benedict XVI. Al-Azhar broke-off relations with the Holy See after his Regensburg lecture in September 2006 and his appeal shortly afterward to Egypt and Iraq to protect the Christian community after the bombings of their churches.
Since Francis became pope relations have developed in a particularly friendly manner with the Coptic Orthodox and have significantly improved also with Al-Azhar and Egyptian Muslim leaders.
The improvement in relations with the Copts, which began when Paul VI and Shenouda III met in the Vatican in 1973, is particularly striking. Having watched the beginning of Francis’ ministry, the new Coptic Orthodox pope, Tawadros II, decided to visit him in May 2013. It was his first foreign visit since his election in November 2012. He stayed at Santa Marta and had private meetings with Francis. The two Christian leaders connected so well that Tawadros invited him to Egypt. They have remained in close contact ever since. On Friday afternoon, Francis will visit Tawadros and pray with him at “the wall of the martyrs” where many died last December.
Over the past four years relations between Egypt’s Muslim leaders and the Holy See have also progressed well. Egyptian imams sent Francis greetings on his election and after monitoring his outreach to Muslims they re-opened relations with the Holy See. Then, on May 23, 2016, for the first time ever, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb, the highest religious authority in the Sunni Muslim world, visited the pope. The two leaders got on well and the imam invited Francis to Al-Azhar for an international peace conference.
It was a significant invitation since 85 percent of all Muslims are Sunnis and Al-Azhar University (founded 969 C.E) is Sunni Islam’s most prestigious center of learning. Even though some consider it as an obstacle to the modern interpretation of Islam, the university still provides formation for thousands of imams from different countries worldwide each year.
The grand imam has also invited the ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew I, to participate in the peace conference, along with 200 other religious leaders from the region.