Problems on hold
The two-day visit by Pope Francis to Egypt last weekend was short but carried profound spiritual and inclusive dimensions. It addressed not only Egypt’s Church, but the Egyptian people in their entirety. As head of State of the Vatican, invited by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to visit Egypt, Pope Francis was given a State reception and was received by the President. The two heads of State spoke warmly and cordially of their meeting. Pope Francis also met Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar institution which is the world’s topmost authority on Sunni Islam. In courtesy and mutual respect, they stressed that moderate Islam is innocent of the extremism and terrorism the world is seeing.
Then came the meeting with Pope Tawadros II, Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. It was a meeting that tangibly overflowed with the warmth and brotherly affection which has bonded the two popes since Pope Tawadros visited Pope Francis at the Vatican in May 2013. It also built on the visit 44 years ago by the Coptic Pope Shenouda III to Pope Paul VI in Rome, the outcome of which was an important theological document. In Cairo, Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros presided over prayers for the unity of the Church, also for the souls of the martyrs of the Coptic Church who lost their lives to recent suicide bombings.
Pope Francis celebrated Holy Mass at the Air Defence stadium in al-Tagammu al-Khames, east of Cairo; in an event organised by the Armed Forces. Some 25,000 Christians attended. It was the perfect ending to a short yet substantial visit that made the hearts of all Egyptians sing with joy. I thank Egypt’s leadership and all the apparatuses involved in the arduous efforts of organising and securing this visit, a historic moment in the interaction of civilisations.
Despite the splendour of the visit and its heart-warming hopeful imprint, it did not escape the usual spice of the social media. Bloggers masterfully found fault with what took place and suggested what should have taken place instead; they fired questions, speculations and conclusions.
It started with a seemingly innocent question but which all the same carried an accusatory note. “Why didn’t President Sisi receive Pope Francis at Cairo Airport?” The question brought on countless opinions, all based on unsubstantiated personal views, completely oblivious to potential harm they carried. It needed a reasonable voice to remind everyone that State visits and receptions are subject to protocols agreed upon beforehand, and to recall the warmth and cordiality with which the President received the Pope at the Presidential Palace, and the magnificent welcome ceremony he held in his honour.
Pope Tawadros too had his fair share of social network gossip. Again: “Why didn’t he receive Pope Francis at Cairo Airport?” The overwhelming brotherly affection with which Pope Tawadros received his guest at the papal headquarters, also the warmth that dominated the meeting which was concluded by a profound joint prayer in which all the heads of Egypt’s churches participated, did not stop the negative comments. “Why didn’t Pope Tawadros attend the Mass celebrated by Pope Francis?” Nothing put an end to the polemics except news of the departure of Pope Tawadros to Rome to participate in a clerical congress, before Mass had started at the Air Defence stadium.
The issue that aroused the most debate, however, was the joint statement signed by the two popes. The statement includes 12 articles that cite the history of the relations between the two Churches, and draws an outline for present and future cooperation. An English version of the statement can be found on [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/coptic-affairs/pope-francis-visits-egypt-2/19986/]. A copy of the statement circulated online included an erroneous version of article 11 that tackles the Sacrament of Baptism. It read: “We have decided not to repeat the sacrament of baptism that was administered in either of our Churches, to any person who wishes to join the other Church.” Whereas the correct expression used in article 11 of the statement which Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros signed reads: “…We will strive with diligence and integrity towards refraining from the re-baptism that was administered in either of our Churches, for any person who wishes to join the other…” The spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Church immediately denied the first expression and confirmed the second, and the spokesman of the Catholic Church followed suit. But this did not prevent the torrent of negative comments on the social media that rushed to allege that the incident depicted conflict and divisions between the two Churches. The affection that dominated Pope Francis’s visit, the substantiality of its outcome, and the joy it reflected on all Egyptians appeared to have been lost on these bloggers; thankfully, others could see and express the essence of the visit.
Social media will be social media! Readers or visitors must, however, make sure they properly assess whatever is posted on that platform which has become an indispensable part of the way we live.
3 May 2017