Pope of peace … Egypt of peace
I write these lines as Pope Francis wraps up his two-day visit to Egypt and boards a plane heading back home. It was the first papal visit to Egypt since that paid by Pope John Paul II in 2000, and came in return to the visit by Pope Tawadros II to the Vatican in 2013, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in 2014, and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyeb in 2016.
Pope Francis has a reputation among Egyptians as a very loving, humble, tolerant man of God. As such, they were more than eager for him to visit their land. They came up with a slogan to his visit that overflowed with the sentiments of their innermost hearts: “Pope of peace in Egypt of peace”.
Yes, Egyptians see their country as a land of peace. They realise they are caught in fighting a vicious brand of terrorism, and that this fight might be an extended one, but their goal is to ultimately go back to their original basic characteristic of peace. In fact, Egyptians have always been such a peaceful and forbearing people that they have gained a reputation among their Arab neighbours of always submitting to oppression without ever rebelling. Apart from the fact that history belies this allegation, here is Egypt again engaged today in a gruelling fight against terrorism cloaked in Islamic Qur’anic teachings.
+Land of peace, regardless+
The majority of Muslim Egyptians are downhearted and disbelieving that their religion could be so exploited; they have been feelingly offering their condolences to Copts on the suicide bombings that took place in al-Boutrossiya church in Cairo on 11 December 2016, then later at Mar-Girgis’s in Tanta and St Mark’s in Alexandria on Palm Sunday, 9 April 2017. Altogether, the three bombings claimed some 80 lives. The faith of Muslim Egyptians in their mainstream does not resonate with a violent, bloodthirsty version of Islam. Despite Egypt being a Muslim-majority country, Egyptians revolted against the Islamist regime that came to power in Egypt in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring in part because that regime attempted to impose a fundamentalist version of Islam; this did not sit well with Egyptians.
The message propagated by Pope Francis that peace lies at the centre of all religions, and his eagerness to cooperate with the prestigious Muslim institution of al-Azhar in this regard, thus held special appeal to Egypt’s Muslims
As to Egypt’s Christians, they have always been a peaceful lot that took in with courage the various tribulations imposed on them throughout their history which goes back to the first AD century. The Copts were persecuted by the Romans then the Byzantines and, starting from the 7th century, by the Arab Muslims who conquered their land. Yet under the Arabs, the Copts’ tribulations took many forms but not the bloodbaths they had undergone under the Romans and which gave the Coptic Church its famous depiction: Church of the Martyrs. Yet the continued historic persecution endowed them with resilience and an epic faith that grows stronger even as their agony prolongs, and that prepares them for more suffering to come.
It was in this spirit that Copts prepared to welcome the Pope of Peace.
+President Sisi: Egypt hosted Holy Family+
Pope Francis’s first meeting once he landed on Egyptian soil at around 2pm was with President Sisi who warmly welcomed his valued guest, terming him “a dear guest and a spiritual leader to people of different religions from across the world.”
In a speech given later in the evening, the President said Egypt stands at the forefront of international efforts to confront terrorism and would continue to do so while preserving its unity and its history as a land of diversity and tolerance. He called on “peace-loving countries” to cooperate to eradicate terrorism, stressing that this would entail destroying the terrorists’ infrastructure as well as stopping the recruitment of new elements to terrorist groups.
The President praised Pope Francis for his efforts to promote international peace, and reminded that the diplomatic relations established 70 years ago between Egypt and the Vatican should help the cause of peace.
He also praised the excellent relations between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, which were fostered through the visit to Rome by Pope Tawadros on 10 May 2013. President Sisi reminded that ever since, the two Churches have celebrated the date 10 May as the “Day of Brotherly Love”.
Pope Francis said he was happy to be in Egypt, the country of an old civilisation, and called it ‘Umm al-Dunia’, literally Mother of the World, as Egyptians and their President are fond of terming it. He hailed Egypt which once offered refuge to the Holy Family, and which today is a shelter for millions of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, South Sudan.
+God of freedom+
Pope Francis stressed the key role Egypt plays in the Middle East against blind, inhuman violence that results from arms trade, power-seeking, and religious extremism which uses the name of God to commit massacres.
He observed the goals Egypt is attempting to achieve: bread, freedom, and social justice for all, and praised the efforts towards that end, efforts that he said deserve sacrifices and require respect for human rights, equality, freedom of expression and religion without discrimination.
The Pope offered tribute to those who laid their lives for the safety of the nation: the police and military, Copts, and victims to terrorism. He expressed wishes for the recovery of those injured in recent attacks, and extended his support to the North Sinai Copts who some three months ago had to flee their homes in the face of terrorist threats and killings. He thanked the authorities for providing aid and support to them.
Pope Francis stressed that no civilisation can be built without condemning evil, extremist ideologies and rejecting extreme interpretations [of religious texts] that aim to manipulate the name of God. “God respects every life, whether it belongs to a believer or non-believer.
Addressing President Sisi, he said: “God is the God of freedom, as you said now Mr President.”
Pope Francis saluted all Egyptians and all Christians living in Egypt: Copts, Orthodox Armenians, Catholics, Protestants, and Greek Byzantines, who give an example of the possibility of living in mutual peace and respect.
+No violence in name of God+
Once the meeting with President Sisi was over, Pope Francis met Sheikh Tayyeb at al- Azhar University. He was in time to join the concluding session of a two-day peace conference hosted by al-Azhar.
The grand imam expressed gratitude to the Pope for rejected the association of Islam with terror. He said it was the moment for religions to take up the call of peace, equality and dignity of all humans, irrespective of faith or colour.
He blamed international arms trafficking and reckless international political decisions for the ‘state of chaos’ which today prevails in so many countries. “It is essential,” he said, “to block the flow of money and weapons to those who perpetrate violence”.
Pope Francis began his address with the formal Arabic greeting “assalamu alaykum (Peace be upon you)”. He told the religious dignataries gathered that today, “we should reiterate our rejection of any violence committed in the name of God.
“We have an immense need to create peace not division. Peace alone… is holy and no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God, for it would profane his name.”
“Precisely in the field of dialogue, particularly interreligious dialogue, we are constantly called to walk together … In this regard, the work of the Mixed Committee for Dialogue between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Committee of al-Azhar for Dialogue offers a concrete and encouraging example. Three basic areas, if properly linked to one another, can assist in this dialogue: the duty to respect one’s own identity and that of others, the courage to accept differences, and sincerity of intentions.
“Let us say together: the more we grow in the love of God, the more we grow in the love of our neighbour.”
+Pope Tawadros: Egypt pays tax of blood+
It was around 6:30pm when the moment Copts were eagerly awaiting arrived: Pope Francis headed to St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassiya, Cairo, to meet Pope Tawadros who described the pontiff’s visit as a new step on the road to love and peace.
With visible warmth of heart, Pope Tawadros welcomed the pontiff to Egypt, “the land that pays every minute a tax of blood to maintain its name as the land of peace.”
The Coptic Pope praised the Catholic pope’s efforts to promote cooperation and dialogue among the leading churches of the world. He mentioned his visit to the Vatican four years ago, only a few months after Francis became pope, and also expressed appreciation for the role of Catholic schools and missions in Egypt in promoting education and offering charity work.
Pope Tawadros mentioned the history of St Francis of Assisi, the saint whose name the pope chose to take when he became pontiff, who came to Egypt in the 13th century.
“We have lived for 14 centuries in this country, and at times witnessed hardships. But these hardships gave us strength and fortified our faith, just as fire works to purify silver,” said the Coptic Pope. “The Coptic Church has seen hard times in the past few months, but the tragedy is that of a coherent nation whose unity can never be compromised.”
Pope Tawadros said he was looking forward to the day when both the Coptic and the Catholic churches can together celebrate Christmas and Easter on common dates, and have communion together.
+Heading towards a One Church+
Pope Francis then gave his address, saying that the Vatican had been praying on Palm Sunday alongside the Coptic Orthodox Church when two churches in Egypt were bombed; the Vatican lived through the experienced with them.
He talked of the ecumenism of blood, saying that the ecumenical journey was mysteriously sustained by the blood of many martyrs from past centuries but also of the present day. Recalling the “innocent blood of defenceless Christians” killed in recent terror attacks, he said “strengthened by this witness, let us strive to oppose violence by preaching and sowing goodness, fostering concord and preserving unity”.
The two popes then signed a joint statement on their efforts on the path of Church unity basing upon the past ecumenical councils and the steps taken along this route by their predecessors Pope Paul VI and Pope Shenouda III in 1973. Most significant in the statement was a declared commitment to “strive diligently, in all integrity” towards recognising baptism in the two Churches so that there would be no need to repeat the baptism of any member of one of these Churches who wishes to join the other Church.
Gifts were exchanged between the two popes following the signing ceremony then they headed, preceded by a deacon procession chanting magnificent Coptic praises, to al-Boutrossiya (St Peter and St Paul) church the grounds of which adjoin those of the Cathedral. The church was the scene of the first suicide bombing on 11 December. Even though it was left in shambles, the Armed Forces renovated it, and it is now in regular use; a shrine has been set up for the 28 victims who fell to the bombing. Pope Francis laid flowers on and lit a candle candles in the shrine. Then followed an ecumenical memorial service.
+Messengers of peace+
Pope Francis left Boutrossiya church once the service was over, he headed to the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See in the suburb of Zamalek where he spent the night.
Saturday 29 April saw Pope Francis celebrate Holy Mass at the Air Defence Stadium in al-Tagammu al-Khames, east of cairo. The stadium was full; 25,000 people attended Mass. The Pope was given a warm welcome; the congregation was elated at being able to celebrate Mass with him together with the top Coptic Catholic clergy in Egypt. But most lucky were two newlywed couples who insisted the Pope should give them a blessing, which he smilingly did, as they embark on their new lives.
After Mass, Pope Francis had lunch with Egypt’s Coptic Catholic clerics then followed his official farewell ceremony and departure for Rome.
For all Egyptians, the visit was memorable. But especially for the Copts and their Pope Tawadros, the words of Pope Francis ring true: “Your Holiness, dearest brother, may the same Lord today grant us to set out together as pilgrims of communion and messengers of peace.”
29 April 2017