-TWO CRUX ARTICLES ON THE POPE’S VISIT
“Though Pope Francis avoided the quotation linking the Prophet Mohammed with violence that stirred protest when used by Pope Benedict XVI at Regensburg, Germany, in 2006, he delivered a similar sort of wake-up call for religious leaders in the Islamic world, insisting that violence is a “negation of every authentic religious expression.”
“Though some thought Pope Francis might be a bit oblique about anti-Christian persecution during his two-day trip to Egypt, he waded directly into the realities on Friday, reminding political and civil leaders gathered at a hotel run by the country’s defense ministry, of attacks that Coptic Christians have suffered and telling local Christians that they are “an integral part of this country.”
CAIRO, Egypt – Popes are many things, including statesmen and diplomats, and sometimes grasping the message they truly want to deliver requires a bit of reading between the lines. Other times, however, a pontiff may decide that a situation is so urgent, or so unavoidable, that he simply tackles it head-on, without the usual word games or restraint.
Friday in Egypt seemed to capture Francis in one of those “put it all on the line” moods.
In effect, what Francis delivered on his first day of his brief stop in Egypt was almost his version of Pope Benedict XVI’s celebrated, and controversial, 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which Benedict stirred a firestorm of protest by quoting a line linking the Prophet Mohammed with violence.
Francis avoided the incendiary quotation, but nevertheless delivered a clear and powerful call to religious leaders – which, in the Egyptian context, unmistakably means Islam in the first place – to reject violence in the name of God.
“Let us say once more a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or the name of God,” he said. “Together let us affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith, belief and hatred.”
Addressing a nation gripped by a rising tide of Islamic extremism, and one in which the Muslim Brotherhood movement led a government as recently as 2013, Francis insisted that it’s urgent to “unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity.”
“We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God,” he said.
“No act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God,” he said, “for it would profane his name.” He was speaking to an international conference on peace hosted by Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque and university, widely considered the most prestigious center of learning in the Sunni Muslim world.
Several observers compared the atmosphere at Al-Azhar on Friday to the inter-religious gatherings launched by St. John Paul II in Assisi, Italy, in 1986, with imams and shamans, rabbis and Christian bishops, all gathered together in a show of common cause.
Luis Badilla, the director of the “Il Sismografo” news site in Italy, noted the striking point that several Jewish representatives were invited to the Al-Azhar event, though representing Jordan and the rest of the Middle East as opposed to Israel.
Christians make up a significant share of the Egyptian population, and frequently find themselves at risk for the pressures of a rising tide of Islamic militancy. Just two weeks ago, on Palm Sunday, bombs exploded at two Coptic churches, one in Tanta in the Egyptian Delta and the other in Alexandria, leaving 45 people dead.
Ahmad al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, seemed to capture the mood of the pope’s remarks, beginning his own address by calling for everyone in the hall to stand for a moment of silence for all the victims of terrorism and consolation for their families.
While the Vatican and Al-Azhar have a standing mixed committee devoted to dialogue, and have developed a budding partnership in recent years after an interruption in relations under Pope Benedict XVI, critics have accused the Islamic clerical establishment at the university and mosque of playing an ambivalent role – preaching tolerance and pluralism to the outside world, but behind the scenes supporting extremist currents in Egyptian culture.
In that context, Francis demanded that all religious leaders step up to counter what he described as the “incendiary logic of evil,” and said it’s past time to turn “the polluted air of hatred into the logic of fraternity.”
Violence in the name of God, Francis pointedly said, is “the negation of every authentic religious expression.”
That line drew strong applause, as did several similar statements from the pontiff along the way.
“Evil only gives rise to more evil, and violence to more violence, in a spiral than ends by imprisoning everyone,” Francis said, stressing in particular the importance of educating youth in peace.
Education has been a bone of contention in Egypt, as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has called for a revision of school curricula to resist the rise of religious fundamentalism, a suggestion that’s been resisted by some elements of the Islamic establishment in the country.
Rejecting what he described as an attitude of “rigidity and close-mindedness,” Francis called Egyptians to both “value the past and set it in dialogue with the present,” learning to include others as an “integral part” of Egyptian society.
Francis knows that while the Egyptian constitution theoretically protects religious freedom, and while al-Sisi came to power in 2014 vowing to protect Christians and other religious minorities, in reality life is increasingly precarious for Christians in this overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim society.
In that context, Francis didn’t appear to pull any punches in his advocacy for religious freedom and human rights.
“Recognizing rights and basic freedoms, particularly religious freedom, represents the best way to build the future together, to be builders of civility,” he said.
Arguing that religion has an intrinsic vocation to promote peace, “today more than ever,” Francis argued that religious leaders can’t simply pay lip service to dialogue and tolerance, but their actions have to be coherent with their rhetoric.
“It is of little or no use to raise our voices, and run about to find weapons for our protection,” he said. “What is needed today is peacemakers, not fomenters of conflict; firefighters, not arsonists; preachers of reconciliation, not instigators of destruction.”
Francis also warned against “demagogic forms of populism,” which in the context of the Middle East is often code for charismatic political and clerical leaders who play on sectarian conflicts. Likewise, he denounced “unilateral actions,” which typically refers to world powers asserting their own interests in the region, as “a gift to the proponents of radicalism and violence.”
He also called for making a clear distinction between religion and politics – what Americans might call the separation of church and state.
“The religious and political spheres are confused and not properly distinguished,” he said. “Religion risks being absorbed into the administration of temporal affairs and tempted by the allure of worldly powers which, in fact, exploit it.”
Finally, in a typical flourish, Francis insisted that real peace is likely to remain elusive without an end to the “proliferation of arms.”
“Only by bringing into the light of day the murky maneuverings that feed the cancer of war can its real causes be prevented,” the pontiff said.
Al-Tayeb agreed, delivering his own broadside at the arms trade.
“The arms trade and marketing that ensures the continuous operation of death plants and extraordinary enrichment resulting from suspicious deals backed by reckless international resolutions” is to blame for global conflicts, he said.
“For the sake of that hateful trade, hotbeds of tensions are created, and religious seditions and racial and sectarian conflicts and differences among the nationals of the same homeland are inflamed, turning human life into an unbearable miserable hell,” he said.
Al-Tayeb aggressively insisted that Islam itself is not to blame for atrocities carried out in its name.
“Islam is not a religion of terrorism for a group of followers [who] carelessly expedites to manipulate with Islamic texts and misinterpret them ignorantly.” he said. “Then, they shed blood, kill people, and spread destruction. Unfortunately, they find available sources of finance, weapons, and training.
“Likewise, Christianity is not a religion of terrorism just because a group of its followers carries the cross and decimates people without distinction between men, women, children, fighters, and captives,” he said. ” Judaism is not a religion of terrorism just because a group of its followers employs the teachings of Moses, God forbids, occupying lands and extirpating millions of the indigenous defenseless civilian citizens of the Palestinian people.”
(His line on the exploitation of Palestinians drew strong applause from the crowd at Al-Azhar.)
The Grand Imam also thanked Pope Francis for his repeated statements defending Islam “against the accusation of violence and terrorism.” The two men embraced enthusiastically when al-Tayeb concluded, and Francis referred to him as “my brother.”
Francis arrived in Egypt on Friday after a brief flight from Rome, meeting Sisi at Cairo’s presidential palace and then taking part in the peace conference at Al-Azhar. Later in the day, he was scheduled to make an address to political and civil authorities (set in a five-star hotel run by the country’s all-powerful Ministry of Defense), and then to meet Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, in an ancient Christian neighborhood of Cairo.
On Saturday, Pope Francis will say a Mass and then meet with clergy, religious and seminarians ahead of his return to Rome.
Although precise counts are elusive, somewhere between ten and twenty percent of Egypt’s population is believed to be Christian, amounting to somewhere between ten and twenty million people. It’s the most significant Christian community in the Middle East.
Though Egypt is almost 90 percent Muslim, there were nevertheless signs of enthusiasm for Pope Francis’s visit on Friday. The streets of Cairo, for instance, were lined with posters declaring that the “pope of peace” is visiting the “Egypt of peace.”
The Sisi government perceives a vested interest in playing up the significance of the trip, as it has branded itself as a secular bulwark against religious fundamentalism. That tactic, however, has drawn fire from critics, who see it as a way of deflecting attention away from the government’s contested record on human rights and political dissent.
Gihane Zaki, director of Italy’s Egyptian Academy, said that given the role of Al-Azhar in the Muslim world, Francis’s visit will have consequences beyond the boundaries of Egypt.
“It’s not just the Middle East,” she said. “Students from Africa and Asia come too, and if they can say they have a degree from Al-Azhar, it opens doors.
“Egypt is a pillar of the Middle East and the entire Muslim world, and what happens there matters,” Zaki said. “For the pope and the Grand Imam to stand under its dome and hold hands … is an important new page for the future.
“The entire scenario of the Middle East will be called into question during these two days of the pope’s visit.” she said.
Pope Francis delivers shot in arm to Egypt’s persecuted Christians
Though some thought Pope Francis might be a bit oblique about anti-Christian persecution during his two-day trip to Egypt, he waded directly into the realities on Friday, reminding political and civil leaders gathered at a hotel run by the country’s defense ministry, of attacks that Coptic Christians have suffered and telling local Christians that they are “an integral part of this country.”
By John Allen in Crux:
CAIRO, Egypt – Heading into his two-day trip to Egypt, it was unclear exactly how direct Pope Francis might be about the threats faced by the local Christian community, The pontiff came to Egypt, after all, to build bridges of friendship with the Muslim establishment, and he also doesn’t want to embarrass his hosts in the Egyptian government.
However, it turns out that Pope Francis decided to be fairly blunt after all.
On Friday afternoon, in an address to political and civil authorities in the world’s sixth most populous Muslim nation, Francis made an unmistakable reference to the gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to the fate of Egypt’s Christian minority, which represents somewhere between ten and twenty percent of the national population.
“I think in a particular way of all those individuals who in recent years have given their lives to protect your country: young people, members of the armed forces and police, Coptic citizens and all those nameless victims of various forms of terrorist extremism,” the pope said.
“I think also of the murders and the threats that have led to an exodus of Christians from northern Sinai. I express my gratitude to the civil and religious authorities and to all those who have offered welcome and assistance to these persons who have suffered so greatly,” Francis said to the crowd at the Hotel Almasah, which is owned and administered directly by Egypt’s Ministry of Defense.
“I also think of the victims of the attacks on Coptic churches, both last December and more recently in Tanta and Alexandria,” Francis said. “To the members of their families, and to all of Egypt, I offer my heartfelt condolences and my prayers that the Lord will grant speedy healing to the injured.”
He was referring to a bomb attack on Cairo’s main Coptic cathedral in December 2016 that left at least 25 dead, as well as Palm Sunday bombings at two other Coptic churches just weeks ago that killed 47 people.
In less spectacular fashion, Copts in Egypt routinely complain of low-level oppression and harassment, including difficulties in finding positions and opportunities for advancement in employment and in political life. While Christianity has had a foothold in Egypt from the very beginning, and although the Egyptian constitution ostensibly guarantees religious freedom, Christians generally say the reality on the ground is mixed and becoming tenser.
In that context, Pope Francis on Friday sought to deliver the Christian community a shot in the arm, recognizing the Coptic, Greek, Byzantine, Armenian and Protestant Christian churches of Egypt.
“Your presence in this, your country, is not new or accidental, but ancient and an inseparable part of the history of Egypt. You are an integral part of this country, and over the course of the centuries you have developed a sort of unique rapport, a particular symbiosis, which can serve as an example to other nations,” he said, drawing strong applause.
Francis also suggested the country’s Christians have an ecumenical vocation.
“You have shown, and continue to show, that it is possible to live together in mutual respect and fairness, finding in difference a source of richness and never a motive of conflict,” he said.
Later on Friday, Francis is scheduled to visit the Coptic Orthodox cathedral of Cairo to greet Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox church, in another expression of solidarity and concern.