Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church, went to Cairo with a message of unity and peace. On his first day, speaking at an International Peace Conference held at the al-Azhar conference centre, he said that “violence is the denial of every true religion” and called on religious leaders to not hesitate to expose the violence and its perpetrators.

Pope Francis was addressing the 300 conference participants at a time where the host country is torn apart by religious and political strife. Egypt has seen a series of attacks on Copts and Coptic churches and has been in a state of emergency after the twin attacks on Palm Sunday which left at least 49 people dead and more than 110 injured.

The Catholic patriarch raised the plight of persecuted Christians with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In the past four years, Egypt has risen from 25th to 21st in the annual World Watch List of the top 50 countries where Christians face most persecution, produced by Open Doors. A Vatican diplomatic source warned, however, that “he should be careful not to overly criticise the government for Christian persecution, a trap that (his predecessor) Benedict XVI fell into. ‘The attacks are very difficult to control. […] How are you going to prevent them? It’s very difficult. They have taken measures to increase power but that doesn’t go down well with the Western world’.”

‘Country of civilization and alliances’

Pope Francis meets the Grand Imam of al-Azhar in Cairo as he speaks at an International Peace Conference here.

Speaking at the Peace Conference, hosted by the Grand Imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque, Ahmed el-Tayeb, was one of the main reasons for Pope Francis to go to Cairo as it is part of improving relationships with Al-Azhar, a 1000 year old Islamic seat of learning, comprising of a mosque and university.

In 2011 it broke off ties with the Vatican after Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI called for better protection for Copts, following a bombing of a church in Alexandria in which 23 people were killed. To ease the tension in the relationship, the Grand Imam visited the Vatican in May 2016, after which it was the Pope’s turn to accept an invitation to come and visit Cairo.

The Pope, who named himself after St Francis of Assisi, the saint who became known because of his life dedicated to poverty and peace, talked about Egypt as the ‘country of civilization’ and the ‘country of alliances’. He addressed what he considered to be some of the main drivers of radicalization and violence: education, lack of opportunities leading to poverty, and the arms trade.

Honouring the victims

Pope Francis prays in front of a blood-stained wall of St Peter and St Paul’s church in Cairo where 29 people were killed in a suicide attack in December.

Later in the first afternoon he met with political leaders and representatives of civil society and visited the Coptic Pope, Tawadros II, who narrowly escaped injury on Palm Sunday. He also joined him and other Christian leaders in honouring the victims of the recent attacks, praying silently in front of a blood-stained wall of St Peter and St Paul’s church in Cairo where 29 people were killed in a suicide attack in December.

The two-day visit came at a time of high anxiety among Christians, who make up around 10 per cent of the population. Most of them are Coptic Orthodox Christians where a minority of around 299,000 align themselves with Rome, while others ally with Protestant and Evangelical Church teaching and practice.

Father Stephanos Samy, a priest at the Mar Girgis (St George) Cathedral in Tanta, compared Pope Francis and his visit to the Good Samaritan who showed compassion in the face of the blood and suffering of the Church. The cathedral in Tanta was one of the two Coptic churches that were attacked on Palm Sunday. According to the priest the visit of Pope Francis to Egypt not only brought encouragement but also communicated a clear message to the world “that Egypt is the land of love and peace and that religious unity is not in doubt. Muslims and Copts are living here together, united, and they will not allow terrorists to bring division.”

‘Suffering will continue’

In a video message released ahead of his visit Pope Francis indicated that he “would like this visit to be a witness of my affection, comfort and encouragement for all the Christians of the Middle East, a message of friendship and respect for all the inhabitants of Egypt and the region, and a message of brotherhood and reconciliation with all the children of Abraham, particularly the Muslim world, in which Egypt holds so important a place.”

Although many Coptic Christians were encouraged by the Pope’s visit, others have doubts that it will change their situation. Photo: CTV

While the Coptic community is encouraged by the Pope’s support at this difficult time, not everyone is enthusiastic about his views regarding peace for all mankind. Reuters quotes historian Roberto de Mattei as saying: “The perpetrators [of the Palm Sunday attacks] were “not unbalanced or crazy but bearers of a religious vision that has been combating Christianity since the seventh century”. And leading Catholic scholar of Islam, Egyptian-born Father Samir Khalil Samir, said that Francis meant well but was naive.

Amir Fakhry, a Coptic activist in Minya Governorate, is of the view that “the visit of Pope Francis was not a visit to the Coptic people, but to the Egyptian state and supporting it in the face of terrorism”. Amir lives and works in an area that has seen its fair share of religious motivated violence. He told World Watch Monitor that the visit “will have a political and economic impact and will encourage tourists to come to Egypt, but it will not change the situation of the Copts. The international political message is that Egypt is safe, but our problems and suffering will continue and it will not change anything.” Referring to the current situation where Copts can’t pray in a place without permission from the authorities, he jokes: “The prayer of Pope Francis is the first Christian prayer in Egypt without permission from government and sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”.

Openness and peace

Some other Christians World Watch Monitor spoke with, emphasized their gratitude for the Pope’s visit as it allowed Egypt, after a wave of terrorist bombings, to show the world a different side of itself.

According to Rev. Bassem Adly, Pastor in the Evangelical church in Assiut (Upper Egypt) “this visit changed the world’s impression of Egypt as it showed that the country is capable and successful in establishing security, dialogue and organizing itself.” He stressed the need to establish and continue dialogue between al-Azhar, the Vatican and the churches as this would have a great impact in the fight against extremist ideology.

Loza Shafik, a Christian woman living in Cairo, agreed with this, saying: “Egypt has presented to the world a model of how to deal with the culture of hatred and death through military and security confrontation as well as intellectual confrontation, using the weapons of openness and peace.”