Last update: 2018-09-07 12:43:05
For the second time in 17 years the Pope “of Rome” visited Egypt. The first Pontiff was Saint John Paul II, who came in February 2000 as a pilgrim during the Jubilee for the third millennium. On the 28th and 29th of April 2017, H.H. Pope Francis visited once again the land of the Nile. Both programs were similar although the political, historical and religious contexts were different.
Indeed, between the two visits 2000-2017, many events took place. The most important was certainly the so-called “Arab Spring” which had very negative effects on Egypt at the economical and political level. Egypt experienced for one year the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood which was a disaster for the people, especially the Christians who were oppressed and persecuted, until the uprising of the people on the 30th of June 2013 which brought president Sisi to power. Another cloud was the freezing of the dialogue between Al-Azhar, the prestigious Sunni University, and the Holy See, due to the reception of the speech given by His Holiness Pope Benedict in Ratisbon. The final break occurred in January 2011, after the Pope’s declarations in the wake of the bombing of the Qiddisayn church in Alexandria (The Two Saints’ Church), which Al-Azhar considered an interference in the interior affairs of Egypt. Many influential people tried to reconcile the two parties, but the time had not yet come.
On the occasion of the enthronement of H.H. Pope Francis on the Chair of St. Peter, some kind of relation was re-established: The Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayyeb and H.H. The Pope exchanged personal letters and things slowly started to change for the better. First, on the 10th of May 2013 H.H. Pope Tawadros II, Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church who had just been enthroned on 18th November of the previous year, made his first trip abroad to visit H.H. Pope Francis in Rome. The chemistry between the two men proved to be compatible and they both joined in the name of brotherly love. Second, in November 2013, president Sisi visited the Pope in the Vatican and gave all guaranties for a successful visit. Then in May 2016, the Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb met H.H. Pope Francis and the two men agreed to patronize a conference on peace, which eventually took place on 28th April 2017 at Al-Azhar conference center in Cairo.
As for the “Little Flock” (Luke 12: 32), the Catholic Church of Egypt was waiting for its supreme pastor to come and visit them. They had frequently asked Pope Francis to consider setting a date. The Pope in several occasions expressed his proximity to the Egyptians and when the Coptic Catholic Hierarchy in their visit ad Limina last February re-invited the Pope, he took the final decision for the 28th - 29th of April.
The date came as a surprise as it was sort of a short notice, but everybody was very happy to receive His Holiness. The Egyptian government made all its efforts to make this visit a success. This pastoral and political apostolic journey can be divided into a five-part sequence.
It was first and foremost a pastoral visit to the Catholics, who form a very small minority within Egypt’s Christian community. Let us remember that in addition to Coptic Catholics, Egypt has other Catholic communities including Armenian Catholics, Maronites, Greek-Catholics, Syrian-Catholics, Chaldeans, as well as Latins, all gathered in the assembly of Patriarch and Bishops of the Catholic Church of Egypt. This extraordinary journey is part of a desire the Pope has expressed on numerous occasions, namely to lend very strong support to the Christian communities in the region. The Catholic Church is not only known for its pastoral presence, but also for its services to the country. There are 171 Catholic schools and in Upper Egypt 35 of them are nearly free of charge. In addition to this, the Catholic Church also runs hospitals, polyclinics and several development programs.
Second, the apostolic journey expressed a desire of reconciliation with the Coptic Orthodox Church, which culminated in the signing of a Declaration of Intent recognizing a common baptism, in order not to repeat the sacrament administered by the other Church. In the Declaration the matter is presented as mutual, but in fact this statement chiefly affects the Coptic Orthodox Church, since Catholics already recognize the Orthodox baptism. We hoped that on the occasion of the visit of His Holiness there would be a full agreement, but it seems that hardliner Bishops were not in favor of a solution to this issue. Time has not yet come. However, the Coptic Church was deeply grateful that the courageous Pope came to Egypt and did not cancel his visit despite the explosions that had taken place only a few weeks before in the two churches in Tanta and Alexandria, where many Copts had been killed and injured. It was a very nice gesture from His Holiness to show solidarity to the Sister Church and to all Egyptians.
Third, on a political level, this visit included a meeting with president al-Sisi, which allowed to consolidate the previously established links. Egypt’s government needed the visit to raise its image, especially after the explosions and the frequent terrorist attacks. His Holiness said to president Sisi in their meeting with the government and dignities:
“Egyptian Christians are not strangers or guests, they are authentic part of the history of Egypt.”
Fourth, the journey allowed for a rapprochement with Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. After years of silence, the dialogue was resumed on February 2018, as a Vatican delegation presided by Cardinal Louis Tauran came to Cairo to study the issues of terrorism and citizenship. During his visit, H.H. the Pope also said in Arabic al-dīn li-llāh wa-l-watan li-l-jamī‘, “religion belongs to God and motherland to all”, the famous slogan popularized by Saad Zaghloul during the 1919 revolution.
Finally, the Copts have been an intermittent target for Islamic groups since the time of Sadat. They have recently seen their situation deteriorate: attacks on Coptic churches in August 2013 by sympathizers of the deposed president Mohamed Morsi, the assassination of 20 Copts in Libya in February 2015 by the Islamic State, recent statements from the Egyptian arm of IS designating the Copts as favoured targets, several attacks on churches in Cairo, Alexandria and in the Nile Delta, assassinations of Copts in the coastal town of North Sinai El-Arish forcing Christian families to flee, etc.
The overthrow of president Morsi, supported by the Coptic hierarchy as well as the Grand Imam, highlights a dilemma which applies to several Middle Eastern countries, as the Christians of the Arab world find themselves between the ruling power and the opponents, which are often Jihadists. Opposition forces for their part do not hesitate to play on the question of religious minorities in order to delegitimize the ruling powers.
These political and security tensions add to the practice of discrimination in some sectors (construction of places of Christian worship, access to certain public offices) or other forms of discrimination (disparaging speeches and educational materials, violent and insulting acts against non-Muslims, etc.). It is therefore crucial what H.H. The Pope said in this context:
“God does not need someone to protect Him, He protects everyone”
The question which arises today in the Arab world in general is that of citizenship. Christians more than any other abandon the region, as it has been the case in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. If this trend continues, the region is running the risk of becoming a totalitarian confessional monolith. Faced with these major challenges, what are the solutions available to Egypt, which is the main Christian center in the region?
During His Holiness’ speech at Al-Azhar University, the Pope insisted:
“There will be no peace without an appropriate education of the younger generations, and there will be no appropriate education for young people today without offering respectful openness and sincere dialogue with others by recognizing their fundamental rights and freedoms, especially religious freedom”
Al-Azhar has been criticized, particularly for certain half-hearted stances in respect of IS and because the repeated appeals by president al-Sisi for a renewal of religious discourse have gone substantially unanswered. The criticisms leveled at this one thousand-year-old institution, from both the government and the Egyptian media, have further increased following the two attacks on Palm Sunday, to the point that al-Azhar has been accused of having become a breeding group for terrorists.
H.H. The Pope also addressed the issues of respect of others, equality, citizenship, and of course the renewal of religious discourse through a revision of textbooks and teaching methods. It is important to patiently undo the work undertaken by the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalist groups over nearly a century: to radicalize society through teaching.
The Egyptian media welcomed the visit of His Holiness and used many of his quotes about Egypt. A week before his visit, talk shows and important programs, like “Cairo Today” (al-Qâhira al-yôm), “Here is the Capital” (Hinâ al-‘âsima) and “10 pm. Program” (al-‘âshira masâ’an) hosted prestigious speakers and public figures who talked about the Pope’s visit and the 70 years of diplomatic relation between Egypt and the Vatican. All the public events during the Papal visit were broadcasted live on air by the national television, which provided it to all local and international channels. Important newspapers like Al-Ahram, Al-Watan, El-Masry-el-youm, El-youm 7 and many others published articles about the Pope written by important authors like Dr. Mostafa El-Feki, president of the Great Library of Alexandria, Dr. Hegazy, a former counsellor to president al-Sisi, the liberal intellectual Dr. Khaled Mountaser and others. The international press was present to the journey in large numbers: more than 500 correspondents were in Cairo, in addition to the journalists accredited to the Holy Se. As the spokesman of the Catholic Church, I gave more than 35 interviews to local and international agencies from all over the world live on air and even over the phone.
As for the impact of the visit on the Egyptian people, most of them commented: “He is an angel on Earth”. They liked his presence and words very much. According to what I experienced after the visit of Saint Jean-Paul II, I believe that this journey will live on in the communal memory, as much as Egyptians still remember the Pope’s visit in the year 2000. The new fact is that this time, also many Muslims and Coptic Orthodox figures as well as dignitaries and state officials insisted on attending in person the Holy Mass celebrated by H.H. Pope Francis or watched it on television. These facts lead me to believe that the visit will be remembered over time.
To conclude, the visit was not only a success but also a blessing to Egypt.