VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ visit to Cairo later this month should serve to promote solidarity with Egypt’s Christians, further peace among its people, and help foster better Catholic relations with the Coptic Orthodox Church and Islam, the chief spokesman for Egypt’s Catholic bishops has said.
“Our expectation is that Pope Francis is a man of peace and brings a message of peace,” Father Rafic Greiche told the Register April 19.
He noted that the Holy Father’s April 28-29 visit takes place just weeks after two suicide bombs killed more than 40 people on Palm Sunday at two Coptic Orthodox Churches, one just north of Cairo, the other in Alexandria.
“He didn’t cancel his visit despite the bombs last week, and this means he’s courageous,” said the Greek Melkite Catholic priest. “He’s carrying out his mission as pope to show solidarity with his Christian brothers in Egypt, and also all Egyptians at a time when these blasts really wounded us and many families. So it’s also a message of comfort.”
The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attacks; Francis condemned the atrocities, called for prayers for the victims, and conveyed his “deep condolences” to Pope Tawadros II, the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, “and to all the dear Egyptian nation.”
Four Key Events
The Pope’s brief visit, which for security reasons the Vatican only announced in mid-March, will comprise four key events: Mass with Egyptian Catholics; a meeting with the grand imam of Al-Azhar University, Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayyib; a visit to Patriarch Tawadros; and a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and civic authorities.
“The four events are all very important; there’s not one that’s better or less than the other,” said Father Greiche.
Al-Azhar University is one of the world’s leading Sunni Muslim institutions, often referred to as the closest equivalent to an “Islamic Rome.” It is the leading interlocutor with the Vatican when it comes to dialogue with Islam, and relations, which were opened in 1998, have become markedly closer in recent years.
The Holy Father is also eager to strengthen relations with the Coptic Orthodox, who number between 6%-18% among Egypt’s predominantly Muslim population, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Patriarch Tawadros was one of the first religious leaders to visit Pope Francis after his election in 2013, and the two leaders have instituted a “day of friendship” to try and heal wounds of division that date back to the 451 Council of Chalcedon.
The ecumenical dimension will be further enriched by the presence of Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, who will also be in Cairo during the visit. Like Pope Francis, he will attend Sheikh el-Tayyib’s International Conference on Peace on April 28.
Catholics, who number just 272,000 in Egypt and yet run many Egyptian schools and hospitals — making it more of a “missionary Church” rather than a “pastoral” one, according to Father Greiche — have great expectations about the visit.
Father Boulos Garas, parish priest of the international Our Lady of Peace parish in Sharm El Sheikh, said it will be “important for Egypt at every level.” He believes that, in the political context, it will “give a push” in fighting terrorism, while the Al-Azhar visit will “show that religions are not at war.”
The recent attacks, he believes, are not aimed at destroying Christianity, but rather about ISIS sending a threatening message to the government that they can influence events, because they know “the government and the world are very sensitive about the killing of Christians.”
The general reality on the ground, he said, is that the authorities, Muslims and Christians, “are friends,” and he recalled how his church received “a lot of phone calls from Muslims who were really sorry about [the attacks].”
And despite the Islamist nature of the terrorism, both Father Garas and Father Greiche have no appetite for the Pope expressing a “realist” view of Islam.
“We’ll never finish if we go down that route; we’ll have the same problems Benedict XVI had after Regensburg,” said Father Greiche, alluding to the pope emeritus’ 2006 address containing hard truths about Islam, which upset Muslims worldwide.
Instead, he believes it is “better to have a dialogue, even if we’re not very convinced about what they say,” as it is “always good to have this bridge of conversation.”
Security will be especially tight for the visit. Just a week before the Pope arrived, ISIS attacked again, this time killing at least one policeman, after the jihadists opened fire on a checkpoint near St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s south Sinai — one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world.
“Everything is in the hands of God,” said Father Greiche. “The government is doing its very best to help the visit be successful.
“The security for the pontiff will be very good.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent