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Pope Francis Makes First Visit to Egypt
Pope Francis (L) and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill embrace during a historic meeting in Havana on February 12, 2016. (GREGORIO BORGIA/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis Makes First Visit to Egypt

Trip to focus on outreach to Muslims

CAIRO- Unlike most trips organized by the Vatican for the Holy See, Pope Francis’s thirty-one hour trip this weekend to Egypt is not primarily aimed at energizing the local Catholic population or spreading a religious message to secular populations.

There are fewer than 250,000 Catholics in Egypt, and the 10 million Christians here mostly adhere to the rites of the Coptic Orthodox Church. They only recognize the authority of their own pope Tawadros II. The clear majority of the remaining 90 million Egyptians are steeped in the competing outlooks of various schools of Islam.

Instead, the trip is about healing the rift between Christians and Muslims in Egypt, where a recent wave of violence launched by the Islamic State is attempting to divide two communities that already mostly live apart. Islamic State has stepped up its attacks on Christian communities in Egypt.

Last week gunmen attacked security forces at a checkpoint near the famous St Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai desert, killing a police officer and injuring three others. The attack was claimed by Islamic State and was the first time the terrorist group had targeted the ancient monastery.

It came just a week after suicide bombers attacked two churches on Palm Sunday, one in the Nile delta city of Tanta and the other in Alexandria, killing 45 people. Those assaults were also claimed by Islamic State, which has vowed more attacks against Christians in Egypt.

A spokesman for the Vatican said that despite the security concerns, the Pope would not ride in a bullet-proof car. In the past, he has compared them to “sardine cans” and said they keep him from having contact with the people.

The last papal visit to Egypt was in February 2000 when Pope John Paul II visited Cairo and the St. Catherine’s monastery. Now the country’s state-supported Muslim institutions including Al Azhar University see themselves battle for hearts and minds between violent extremists and traditional Muslim moderates.

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi has caught Pope Francis’ attention with his call for a “new religious discourse” aimed at encouraging state-supported clerics to reinterpret Islamic doctrines to accept coexistence between Muslims and Christians.

“President Sisi is calling for a renewal of religious discourse to show the tolerance of Islam for other religions,” Usama al-Abd, a former president of Al-Azhar University who is now chairman of the Egyptian parliament’s religious affairs committee, told The Media Line. “Pope Francis is coming to Al Azhar to participate on the conference to widen the renewal of religious discourse on a regional and global level.”

On Friday the pontiff will join Grand Imam Dr Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the head of Al-Azhar -the 1,000-year old center of traditional Sunni scholarship, and Coptic pope Tawadros II at the Al-Azhar Conference for Peace designed to promote Sisi’s call for religious tolerance.

That tolerance does not extend to Egypt’s banned Muslim Brotherhood which is blamed for an uptick in violence against Christians and an attempt to Islamize the state during the one-year rule of ousted president Mohammed Morsi.
While most Egyptian Christians tend to support Sisi’s approach, others say the focus on institutional Islam overlooks the grass-roots divides in local communities.

“I think that Dr El Tayeb is trying to show the world that Egyptian citizens can overcome religious differences, are able to communicate and eliminate terrorism by themselves. and here’s the pope attending the Al Azhar which means that religious authorities are keen on removing the obstacles to a more tolerant world through dialogue between Islam and Christianity”, Martina Ragy, a 21-year-old undergraduate at Cairo University’s Economics and Political Science department told The Media Line.

“Extremist thought is not only something that needs to change at the leadership level – a great portion of extremism is based on the beliefs of ordinary people,” added Ragy.

By contrast, many Muslims here believe President Sisi is complicating inter-religious relations by emphasizing the Coptic community as a core element of his political power base.

“The situation between the Christians and Muslims has worsened because of the regime’s use of the Copts to strengthen its position and support,” said Ahmed El Wakil, a fourth-year student at Al Azhar’s religion faculty.  Despite this criticism of the politics of Pope Francis’ visit, El Wakil says he and other Al-Azhar students will embrace him as a religious leader.

“Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, represented by Imam al-Tayyib, does not have any problems with any religion. Al-Azhar adopts a moderate doctrine and therefore the Pope is welcomed by Al-Azhar and the Sheikh of Al-Azhar,” Wakil told The Media Line. “And let’s be honest – all Egypt recognizes the importance of the visit, if the pope is comfortable coming here- we hope to welcome more tourists too.”

Thousands of the Catholic faithful are expected to attend the Pope’s outdoor service Saturday at the Air Defense Stadium in the eastern suburbs of the capital.

“The young people from outside Cairo are being bussed to the De La Salle High School and we will be sleeping on the floor there but it is worth it to see the Pope, said Jozef Mata, a 23-year-old social work student from Assiut, in Upper Egypt. “Francis is telling us that we are his sons and he will take care of us whatever the cost.”

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