Pope heads to Egypt to mend ties with Islam, reassure Christians
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In keeping with his inclusive approach to his role, when Pope Francis visits Egypt on Friday he will meet with the head of the most important institution in the Islamic world as well as leaders of the nation’s embattled Christian community.
Pope Francis goes to Egypt at the invitation of Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar University, the most important institution of learning in the world of Sunni Islam. Francis was also invited to Egypt by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who visited the Vatican in November, 2014, and with whom the pontiff will meet during his trip.
Human rights activists will be watching that encounter closely in light of an increasingly repressive atmosphere since Sisi’s election in 2014. When asked if the pope would raise the issue of human rights with the Egyptian head of state, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said: “Let’s see what the pope has to say.”
The only other visit of a Roman Catholic pope to Egypt was by Pope John Paul II in 2000. He did not meet with leaders at Al-Azhar but, after a brief sojourn in Cairo, traveled to Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, believed to contain the site of the burning bush seen by Moses.
Francis will arrive in Cairo on Friday afternoon and will leave 27 hours later.
Dialogue between sects
Francis’ trip will not just be promoting dialogue among different religions, but among different sects of Christianity as well. In addition to addressing two Muslim audiences, Francis will deliver a speech to Copts, who are part of the Oriental Orthodox communion of churches, and another to Catholics, and will hold a meeting with the Coptic patriarch, Pope Tawadros II.
The third branch of Christianity, the Eastern Orthodox Church, will also be represented during the trip, as Pope Francis will be accompanied in Egypt by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.
The vast majority of Egypt’s Christians are Copts, an Orthodox sect that comprises about 10 percent of the nation’s population of 92 million. Catholics on the other hand, make up about 0.3 percent of the citizenry, and the Greek Orthodox population in Egypt is roughly the same size. The Copts are the oldest and largest Christian community in the Middle East.
Francis’ trip comes during a particularly difficult period for Christians in Egypt, who have been the victims of increased sectarian violence ever since the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood-backed president Mohammed Morsi in 2013. On April 9, bombs ripped through two Coptic churches as worshippers celebrated Palm Sunday, killing 45 and marking the bloodiest day for the community in decades. Pope Tawadros had been delivering the mass in one of the churches that was hit, but left moments before the blast.
Despite security concerns in the wake of those attacks, Francis has eschewed the use of an armoured car during his time in Egypt in keeping with his practice of mingling with ordinary people.
Reassuring Christians in the Middle East
Francis’ visit signals a turning point in the relationship between Catholic and Muslim authorities. Tensions between the Islamic world and the Vatican grew strained after a 2006 speech by Pope Benedict XVI that many Muslims felt linked their religion with violence. In 2011 Al-Azhar formally cut ties with the Vatican because of negative comments Benedict made about the conditions of Christians in Egypt.
Francis said he hoped that his trip to Egypt would “offer a valid contribution to interreligious dialogue with the Islamic world, and to ecumenical dialogue with the venerated and beloved Coptic Orthodox Church”. He also said he hoped his visit would "be an embrace of consolation and of encouragement to all Christians in the Middle East”.
The rapprochement was initiated by Al-Azhar, when Tayeb visited the Vatican last May. Tayeb is considered by many to be a moderate and has repeatedly condemned the Islamic State group. The Vatican says that Francis believes that interreligious dialogue is more important now than ever before and that a Muslim voice of tolerance like Tayeb’s is an important one.
The Pope’s recognition of Al-Azhar as part of the solution to the rise of extremist Islamism is not shared by everyone in Egypt. Critics within Egypt contend that the institution has not gone far enough in extinguishing extremist strains in Islam, and Al-Azhar has been resistant to calls by Sisi to “modernise the faith”.
Francis is not without critics of his own. Church conservatives are unhappy that he is normalising relations with Muslim leaders amid ongoing, deadly violence against Christians in the region. Roberto de Mattei, editor of the conservative magazine Christian Roots wrote in an editorial that the perpetrators of the Palm Sunday bombings were "not unbalanced or crazy but bearers of a religious vision that has been combating Christianity since the seventh century”.