‘The Pope of Peace in Egypt of Peace’ read the poster displayed on a billboard in the centre of Cairo. This seemed ironic as the main reason for Pope Francis’ visit at the end of April was to show solidarity with the Church following the horrific bombings of the churches in Tanta and Alexandria on Palm Sunday, resulting in the deaths of over 45 people.
Linked with this was also, however, his desire to engage with the leadership at Al Azhar, one of the principal intellectual centres for Sunni Islam, and to speak at an inter-faith meeting. The visit was a tremendous boost to Christians of all denominations, but also presented a security nightmare, coming in the middle of the State of Emergency imposed after the church bombings. There were police officers lining streets throughout the visit and helicopters circled skies, but thankfully the visit passed without incident.
During the visit he had meetings with Egypt’s President Sisi and also with Pope Tawardos II of the Coptic Orthodox Church, with whom he paid tribute to the people who died in the December Bombing of St Peter’s Church adjacent to the Cathedral in Cairo. The two church leaders signed a declaration, renewing their commitment to find ways of recogising each other’s baptism (these things take a while!).
On the Saturday Pope Francis held a mass which 15,000 people attended. I did have a chance to attend, but it coincided with the Spring Bazaar to raise funds for StARS, so I decided to attend the latter. I think Francis would have approved. In fact, he did speak about refugees, saying that as Egypt had sheltered the Holy Family after their flight from Herod, so Egypt now shelters millions of refugees from other parts of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. He also spoke of the need to help them to integrate into society.
His main aim was, however, to be an ambassador for peace in a region suffering from too many conflicts, and beset by terrorism. He spoke out strongly against those using the name of God to spread hatred, calling on Egyptians to live in harmony with one another, sharing fundamental human values and respecting the faith of all. He advocated a life based on charity: ‘Be fanatical about your faith, but only in the way that leads to engagement and compassion”. He also stressed the special role Egypt must play in promoting peace and combating terrorism, saying that in the days of Joseph, Egypt saved others from famine, but now it is called to save the region from a ‘famine of love and fraternity’. He urged Egypt to ‘radiate the supreme values of justice and fraternity that are the solid foundation and necessary path to peace’.
The Catholic community in Egypt is very small, numbering 150,000 out of over 9million Christians in Egypt (Census figures concerning religious affiliation are never published, but it is generally stated that Christians make up 10% of the population, though the Orthodox Church would estimate a far higher percentage). Numbers of Catholics in Egypt decreased dramatically in the 1950s following the exodus of large numbers of foreign communities like the Italian and French.
Pope Francis affirmed Christians of all denominations, reminding them that the Church was ‘not new or accidental, but ancient and an inseparable part of the history of Egypt’ and an integral part of the country’. I attended an ecumenical lunch just after the visit, and church leaders from the different denominations were all enthusiastic about what Francis had been able to say and accomplish during his visit and were united in the view that it would bear much good fruit.