Francis’ Egyptian Endeavor: Mission Promotes Peace and Interreligious Dialogue
Highlights of the Holy Father’s 27-hour visit to Cairo.
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has said he hoped his visit to Egypt, carried out with “God’s help,” could be “a sign of peace” for the country and the wider region suffering from “conflicts and terrorism.”
Recalling the April 28-29 visit during his May 3 weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square, the Holy Father said Egypt has been a “symbol of hope, of refuge, of help.”
“When there was famine in that part of the world, Jacob and his children took refuge there. Then when Jesus was persecuted, he went there. That is why the memories from this journey enter into the cycle of hope,” he said. “For us, Egypt is a sign of hope for history and for today, for the fraternity that I have described to you.”
He thanked “the entire Egyptian people for their participation and affection” and the Egyptian state for its “extraordinary undertaking” in enabling his risky visit to “take place in the best possible way.”
The Pope’s 27-hour visit to Cairo — which he said had a “double mission” of dialogue between Christians and Muslims and the promotion of peace in the world — has been widely viewed as a success. It was his 18th apostolic voyage outside of Italy.
Carried out amid very tight security, the Pope condemned violence in God’s name at the famous center of learning for Sunni Islam, Al-Azhar University; told Egypt’s Catholics that charity is the only acceptable form of “fanaticism”; and called for education and development in his speech to Egypt’s civil and political leaders.
He also emphasized common witness at a meeting with Pope Tawadros II, the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church — the largest Christian community in the country — during which a joint declaration was signed that included an unexpected agreement to work on a common baptism between the two Churches.
Historians said it was probably the first time in history that a pope, the Coptic Orthodox pope and the Orthodox Ecumenical leader (Patriarch Bartholomew I was also present in Cairo) had met together.
‘Very Crucial Time’
The visit came at a “very crucial time, especially after the Palm Sunday attacks,” said Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman for Egypt’s Catholic bishops.
He was referring to attacks on two Coptic churches April 9, carried out by the Islamic State, that killed 45 people. There have also been other recent terrorist attacks in the country that have distressed Muslims as well as Christians.
“The message of His Holiness was to bring peace to the Egyptian people and give them hope,” Father Greiche told the Register May 2, adding that the Pope himself asked: How could he fear coming to Egypt, the country that had accepted the Holy Family as refugees?
The Pope’s trip began with a visit to Al-Azhar University. At an international conference for peace there, the Holy Father firmly condemned violence in the name of God and spoke of the “incompatibility of violence and faith.”
He stressed the importance of open-minded education in fostering wisdom and building peace and respect for one’s own identity as well as others. He appealed to all people to look to God and “heavenward” rather than the affairs of this world.
Francis also warned that “demagogic forms of populism are on the rise,” which do not help “consolidate peace and stability,” and said that to prevent conflicts and extremism and to build peace, it is essential to eliminate poverty and exploitation, shed light on “murky maneuverings that feed the cancer of war,” and end arms proliferation. The Pope showed he had trust in Al-Azhar and “encouraged and supported them,” said Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian scholar of Islam at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.
This was “essential,” he told Vatican Radio, as the university claims to support nonviolence, but many remain unconvinced.
The Foundations of Peace
The Pope stressed during his visit that peace is also built from the alliance between God and man, and that same foundation is also the basis of a “healthy secularism,” something that emerged in the exchange of speeches with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi April 28.
In that speech, the Pope recalled Egypt’s “ancient and noble civilization” and stressed its “unique role to play in the Middle East” in ending the spread of violence in the region — a key reason the Pope had for visiting the country.
He encouraged peacemaking initiatives, called for “unconditional respect for inalienable human rights” such as religious freedom, and urged “true development” and care for society’s “most vulnerable members.” In a world in which “a world war is being fought piecemeal,” the Pope said, “every ideology of evil” must be repudiated, adding that “history does not forgive those who preach justice but then practice injustice.”
Noting that this year marks the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Egypt and the Holy See, the Pope stressed that peace is a “gift of God, but also the work of man,” and said all of Egypt’s Christians are an “integral part” of the country because they have shown how to live together “in mutual respect and fairness.”
In his speech a little later during the visit to Pope Tawadros II, with whom he has good relations and who he described as a “great man of God” on his return to Rome, Francis underlined how far relations have come since the two Churches split in 451. He drew attention to their common witness, especially in works of charity and what the Pope reiterated is the “ecumenism of blood” — referring to martyrs for the faith who have deepened ecumenical progress in a “mysterious and quite relevant way.”
“Your sufferings are also our sufferings,” the Holy Father said. “Strengthened by this witness, let us strive to oppose violence by preaching and sowing goodness, fostering concord and preserving unity, praying that all these sacrifices may open the way to a future of full communion between us and of peace for all.”
During their meeting, the two Christian leaders’ signed a common declaration which emphasized their joint witness, called for a common translation of the Lord’s Prayer and a common date for the celebration of Easter, and pledged to “seek sincerely not to repeat the baptism that has been administered in either of our Churches for any person who wishes to join the other.”
Until now, both Churches have insisted on a second baptism for Christians who convert from one Church to another.
Father Samir enthusiastically called it an “unimaginable step forward.”
On April 29, a day devoted to Egypt’s Catholics, the Pope celebrated Mass at Cairo’s Air Defense Stadium near the Pyramids, during which he explained the true meaning of the Resurrection. Religiosity, he said, “means nothing unless it is inspired by deep faith and charity.” True faith, he added, “is one that makes us more charitable, more merciful, more honest and more humane,” which gives us the “courage to forgive.” He also said the “only fanaticism believers can have is that of charity. Any other fanaticism does not come from God and is not pleasing to him.”
Before leaving, the Pope also met with Egypt’s priests, religious and seminarians.
He told pilgrims at the Vatican May 3 that he “saw the beauty of the Church in Egypt” that day and encouraged all to find meaning in the “hope of the Gospel.”
Father Greiche said he would have liked the visit to have been longer (security concerns made it short), but nevertheless thought it was a success.
“As Catholics, we are small in number and felt that our Pope is caring for us and coming to give us strength,” he said. “His Holiness has a loving and caring presence, and the Egyptian people all loved him and were emotionally touched by him.”
Father Samir said the Pope “witnessed to a fraternity with everybody” and showed that the Egyptian people “are a family” in which “diversity is an enrichment, not an impoverishment.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
He traveled to Egypt with the Pope on the papal plane.