Pope Francis must use his papal visit to highlight the plight of Egypt’s Christians

A nun cries after the bombing of a Coptic chapel in Cairo in December (CNS)

The Egyptian government has announced that the Pope will be visiting Egypt next month, as reported on this website. This will be something of hazardous trip for the Holy Father, given that Egypt is in the midst of a low level but bloody sectarian conflict between Muslims and its Christian minority, but one can understand why the Pope wants to go to Egypt, and equally well why the Egyptian government wants to host him.

The non-democratically elected government of General El-Sisi would clearly like to receive the ever popular Pope, in the hope that something of the papal charisma might rub off on the regime, which, though broadly supported in the West (the alternatives seem unpalatable) is hardly respectable. Like every other dictator, General El-Sisi is hoping for a bit of papal legitimisation. The general is, of course, the legal head of state, but a Pope can supply moral legitimisation in a way that any other visiting head of state cannot.

This is hardly likely to endear the Pope to those who oppose El-Sisi both inside Egypt and outside it, to whit the Muslim League, and radical Muslims elsewhere, and people like ISIS. But the Pope’s standing with them is probably as low as it can get, anyway, and besides, most of those people are way beyond any sort of dialogue as it is. However, Egypt’s small democratic opposition to the general should not be discounted. They perhaps will be disappointed by a Papal visit. In addition, people who love to point out the way the Vatican habitually cozies up to dictators will have more material to work with. These people are not entirely wrong, by the way: Pope Francis has already shown a great willingness to get close to the Chinese and the Russians, neither of whom are democrats.

The Pope and his people will know this, but they will also have realised that there is much to be gained from an Egyptian visit. For a start, any visit will give welcome publicity to Egypt’s beleaguered Christian minority, most of whom are not Catholics. But the fact that only about five per cent of Egypt’s Christians are Catholics is hardly likely to stop the Pope. He has made something of habit of visiting countries where Catholics are tiny minorities, such as Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The whole point of such visits is to underline the fact that the Pope is the most visible Christian leader on the planet. All Egyptian Christians will be glad to see him, one hopes, and this will reinforce his global role as champion of Christians everywhere. (Though one should note that this did not happen in Georgia. The strategy has its flaws.)

The Pope, however, is sure of a welcome from that other Pope, Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Church, which has been out of communion with Rome for many centuries, but which has not got the fraught history of relations that some Eastern Orthodox Churches have with Rome. It is important to realise that the Coptic Orthodox are not in communion with Constantinople or Russia, and do not carry that same baggage.

The Pope will also meet Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb who is the nearest thing that the Muslims have to a Pope, and who is associated with the Al-Azhar University, the nearest thing the Muslims have to a Vatican. In other words, in seeking top level dialogue with Muslims, the sheikh is the man you go to; though, it is worth pointing out, he is a government appointee, and though he speaks for many Sunni Muslims, he will not speak for all. Indeed, while engaging in dialogue with the sheikh, the Pope will be acutely aware of the limitations of that dialogue.

There will, of course, be these headline generating meetings, but as for the ordinary Catholic in the street, or indeed the ordinary Copt, these are likely to see little of the Pope, given the security situation in Egypt. But they, like the rest of us, must hope for one thing: that the Papal visit will draw attention to the state of Christianity in Egypt and will increase the chances of Egypt’s Christians being allowed to live in peace.