Pope Francis’s historic, 72-hour visit to Cairo has left a profound mark on Egyptians, Catholic leaders said.
“The Pope’s visit was a big blessing to the Egyptians, both Muslims and Christians. It boosted the morale of the Egyptian people, especially after the Palm Sunday blasts,” Fr Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the Egyptian bishops, told Catholic News Service by phone. “He gave a message of love, peace and hope.”
Fr Greiche referred to a pair of terrorist attacks on April 9 at two Egyptian churches. The Islamic State group claimed credit for the attacks, which killed at least 45 people, injured more than 100 others and shook the Middle East’s largest Christian community to the core.
“The Pope’s visit for Catholics in Egypt was a great happening, very positive,” Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, a noted Egyptian Catholic theologian and Islamic studies scholar, told CNS. The professor teaches at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and St Joseph’s University in Beirut.
Even more important, he said, was the historic improvement in ecumenical ties between the Catholic and the Coptic Orthodox churches. Pope Francis and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II signed a declaration on common baptism.
“This was a big step,” said Fr Samir.
“In Egypt, there are a lot of mixed marriages between Catholics and Orthodox,” Fr Samir explained, citing the previous Coptic Orthodox requirement that new members joining the church — including those who had previously been baptised as Catholic — had to be baptised again.
“This was very unhappy,” he said. Now both churches agreed to recognise each other’s sacrament of baptism and pledged to continue working toward greater unity.
“In general, the ecumenical relations with the Coptic Orthodox Church made very good steps and can go further,” Fr Samir predicted, citing a possible reconciliation over the celebration dates of Christmas and Easter.
He also said Pope Francis and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi reached a better understanding. This is important for the country’s Christians, who are among the oldest communities in the Middle East, dating back to the apostle Mark.
“By meeting (el-Sissi) and having a normal, positive relationship, the Pope is supporting the only one who can help the Christians,” the theologian said. “Being a very pious Muslim, el-Sissi is also the one trying to protect the Christians against ISIS.”
Pope Francis has backed Egypt’s efforts to tackle Islamic militancy, saying the country has a special role to play in forging regional peace as well as in “vanquishing all violence and terrorism.”
Yet, Fr Greiche believes it may be difficult to protect Christians and other Egyptians from growing acts of extremist violence.
“Criminal acts are designed in the heads of terrorists first. You cannot say that Christians are safe or anybody is safe from any terrorist attack. We pray and we ask for our Saviour to help us and not to experience more than what we already have,” the priest said.
“We cannot say that Christians will be more safe (due to the Pope’s visit), because terrorists are always there,” he added.
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