Pope Francis touched down in Cairo on Friday and went to Al-Azhar University -- the very heart of Sunni Islam -- to stress the cooperation of Christians and Muslims in bringing about world peace. While emphasizing the "incompatibility of violence and faith," the pontiff said, "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 in the name of God."

Pope Francis is in Egypt also to show solidarity with Egypt’s Coptic Christian community, which constitutes one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. In Alexandria, for example, was founded one of the original patriarchates of the Catholic Church. The visit by the pope came a little less than two weeks after the fatal bombings at two Coptic churches that left 45 dead and dozens wounded.

At Al-Azhar, the Pope greeted the Grand Imam, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, as "my brother." The two men sat side by side at conference on peace being held at the university. Giving a traditional Arabic greeting of "As-Salaam Alaikum," which means "Peace be upon you," after the imam's address, the Pope switched to Italian. “ n order to prevent conflicts and build peace, it is essential that we spare no effort in eliminating situations of poverty and exploitation where extremism more easily takes root, and in blocking the flow of money and weapons destined to those who provoke violence," he said. The pope also called for an end to the "proliferation of arms" and denounced “demagogic forms of populism."

Concerning weapons, the Pope said, "If they are produced and sold, sooner or later they will be used." He said, "Only by bringing into the light of day the murky maneuverings that feed the cancer of war can its real causes be prevented. National leaders, institutions and the media are obliged to undertake this urgent and grave task."

El-Tayeb was once at the forefront of criticizing the Catholic Church, having condemned what he considered inconsiderate remarks by former Pope Benedict XVI. Speaking on Friday, El-Tayeb spoke of the place of faith in modernity. "With all these accomplishments [of the 21st century], how come peace has become a lost paradise? The answer, I assume, is that modern civilization has ignored religion," he said.

Before going to Al-Azhar, the Pope was greeted at Cairo International Airport by Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, Egyptian state TV showed. Afterward, he visited Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi at the Ittihadiya Presidential Palace in Cairo. The leaders stood shoulder to shoulder as the pontifical and Egyptian national anthems played. Al-Sissi called for a comprehensive strategy to defeat terror, adding that Egypt has paid an "exorbitant price" but is determined to defeat it. He said that "true Islam does not command the killing of the innocent." The country has battled Islamic terrorists based in northern Sinai and led by a local affiliate of the Islamic State group. The Muslim Brotherhood is yet another challenge to the Egyptian authorities.

In his speech, the Pope used florid imagery while calling for cooperation between the two religions to lead to the renewal of an environment poisoned by previous generations. “Young people, like well-planted trees, can be firmly rooted in the soil of history,” he said, “and growing heavenward in one another’s company, can daily turn the polluted air of hatred into the oxygen of fraternity.” “We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights,” he said.

The Pope praised the authoritarian Egyptian government’s efforts to protect religious minorities, while also making subtle allusions to its crackdown on human rights. “Some minutes ago you told me that God is the God of liberty,” the Pope said directly to Al-Sisi, adding, “And this is true.” The Pope congratulated the Egyptian government for moving toward economic and social development and recognized Al-Sisi for having spoken “often” and “with a clarity” against religious extremism. He also argued that “history does not forgive those who preach justice, but then practice injustice; history does not forgive those who talk about equality, but then discard those who are different.”

Francis called for the ensuring of “unconditional respect for inalienable human rights such as equality among all citizens, religious freedom and freedom of expression, without any distinction.” He argued that Egypt had a “unique role to play” as a bulwark against spreading violence in the region, “even as it is assaulted on its own soil by senseless acts of violence.”

They went later to the Al-Masa Hotel to address religious and political leaders. The Pope praised Egypt's role in fighting terrorism in the region. He also ceremonially greeted all Egyptian people, including minority Christians -- Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Protestants, and Catholics of various rites. "Your presence in this, your country, is not new or accidental, but ancient and an inseparable part of the history of Egypt," he said. "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." The Pope recognized the sacrifice of soldiers and police in stemming terrorism and violence, while he also spoke with sadness about the forced exodus of Christians from the Sinai Peninsula and the latest bombings of churches. "Egypt thus has a singular task, namely, to strengthen and consolidate regional peace even as it is assaulted on its own soil by senseless acts of violence," he said.


Later, the head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, then greeted Pope Francis at St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo. They processed together and participated in inter-church prayers at St. Peter’s church next door, which saw a deadly bombing in December that killed 23 people. Francis greeted Tawadros as “brother,” praising him for setting up meetings between the Coptic Orthodox and Catholic churches. "It is a promising sign that the following meeting took place this year in Rome, as if to bespeak a particular continuity between the Sees of Mark and Peter," he said. St. Mark founded the patriarchate of Alexandria, while St. Peter founded the worldwide papacy in Rome. Francis asked: "How many martyrs in this land, from the first centuries of Christianity, have lived their faith heroically to the end, shedding their blood rather than denying the Lord."

"Even in recent days tragically, the innocent blood of defenseless Christians was cruelly shed; their innocent blood unites us." The Pope has has frequently spoken of the "ecumenism of blood" to refer to the unity with which Christian leaders have jointly denounced attacks on Christians of all churches by Muslim extremists in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Tawadros said that "our predicament is that of an integrated nation whose hearts will not be separated by those who have ulterior motives. This sets an example to all generations." Francis and Tawadros II then signed a joint, 12-point declaration reiterating the good relations between their churches.

"Let us intensify our unceasing prayer for all Christians in Egypt and throughout the whole world, and especially in the Middle East," the declaration states. "The tragic experiences and the blood shed by our faithful who were persecuted and killed for the sole reason of being Christian, remind us all the more that the ecumenism of martyrdom unites us and encourages us along the way to peace and reconciliation," it reads.

One result of the meeting is that the two churches will work towards not requiring members of their respective congregations to be re-baptized when switching churches. Francis and Tawadros also pledged to heal their schism and praised steps taken so far. They declared that they "will seek sincerely not to repeat the baptism that has been administered in either of our Churches for any person who wishes to join the other." Currently, Catholics who join the Coptic Orthodox Church must be re-baptized. Christians in communion with the Pope of Rome are a small minority in Egypt.

The two spiritual leaders also held a prayer service for the victims of a December suicide bombing at the Coptic cathedral that killed 30 people, most of them women. At least 75 Christians have been killed since December by Islamist attacks.



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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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