Pope Francis’s visit boosts morale of Egypt’s Christians

Sunday 07/05/2017
Embracing dialogue. Pope Francis (R) hugs Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, al-Azhar’s grand imam, at Cairo’s al-Azhar University, on April 28. (AP)

Cairo- The visit by Roman Catho­lic Pope Francis to Egypt assured Egypt’s Christian minority that it was not alone, just weeks after two bombings on Coptic churches.

“The pope’s visit and his words to us did a lot to make us stronger in the face of all challenges,” said Bishop Polis Halim, the official spokesman for the Egyptian Ortho­dox Church. “It was a God-sent gift to us.”

Francis’s visit on April 28-29 came just 19 days after suicide bomb­ers targeted two churches in the northern coastal city of Alexandria and the Nile Delta city of Tanta. At least 45 Egyptians were killed and many more wounded in the attacks, claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS).

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared a national state of emergency following the bombings.

The attacks came as Egypt’s Cop­tic Christians, who make up about 10% of the Egyptian population, celebrated Palm Sunday. Coptic Pope Tawadros II narrowly escaped the attack on St Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria.

Francis visited the cathedral on the first day of his visit. He was greeted with photos of the victims of the attack at the entrance of the church, a grim reminder of the se­curity realities facing the Coptic community.

“The Christians still grieve the death of those victims but the pres­ence of Pope Francis in the very place that saw the victimisation of the Christians gives us the message that we are not alone,” said Halim, who was among senior church fig­ures accompanying Francis during his visit.

Before the trip, Francis said he wanted the visit to be a witness of his “affection, comfort and encour­agement for all the Christians of the Middle East.” Another purpose of the visit was to send “a message of brotherhood and reconciliation with all the children of Abraham, particularly the Muslim world,” he added.

A few hours after arriving in Cairo, Francis headed to al-Azhar — the highest religious body in Egypt — to meet with Grand Imam Ahmed el- Tayeb. He then accompanied Tayeb to address an international confer­ence on peace.

Francis made an impassioned plea against religious violence, calling for Christian and Muslim religious lead­ers to work to build “a new civilisa­tion of peace.”

“Peace alone… is holy and no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God, for it would profane his name,” Francis said in his ad­dress.

“Peacemakers are what is needed, not fomenters of conflict; firefight­ers, not arsonists; preachers of rec­onciliation and not instigators of destruction.”

Following his speech, Francis and Tayeb embraced, creating an im­age that trended on social media in Egypt and drew praise from Muslims and Christians.

“In such a scene, we have had the world’s top Islamic and Christian fig­ures hugging each other and declar­ing to everybody that hostility has no place to exist among the follow­ers of God,” said Mahmoud Mehana, a senior scholar of al-Azhar. “This is enough to baffle all propaganda by the terrorists that non-Muslims are infidels that deserve to be killed.”

Francis’s visit was marked by heightened security, with Cairo de­ploying close to 40,000 police and troops on the streets.

Security expert Samir Badawi said the success in providing security for the visit defied negative information about conditions in Egypt.

“The Vatican security team that came here two weeks before the pope arrived could have cancelled the visit if its members had any doubts about security conditions,” said Badawi, a retired army general.

Egyptian observers said they hoped that Francis’s visit would help revive Egypt’s ailing tourism sector. Several countries issued travel advi­sories after the bombing of a Russian passenger jet over Sinai in late 2015.

“Hundreds of thousands of tour­ists will surely reconsider their fears about visiting Egypt after seeing Pope Francis moving everywhere in Cairo without fear,” said Adel Abdel Razik, a member of the Egyptian Federation of Tourist Chambers, an independent guild of tour operators and investors.

The main message of Francis’s trip was solidarity and support for Egypt’s Christian community. Praying at the St Peter and St Paul Church in Cairo, where an attack killed 29 people in December 2016, he said: “Peaceful worshippers were killed here. Your pain is our pain. Your holy blood unites us.”