Pope Francis will be going to Egypt at Eastertide, but for the Christians of that country it will still be one long Good Friday. The Copts – as most of the country’s Christians are known – are still reeling from the mass murder of nearly 50 of their number by suicide bombers during Palm Sunday liturgies. They know that more is to come: they have been designated by the so-called Islamic State terrorists as “our favourite prey”.
The term is a revealing one. Those who misguidedly present terrorists as victims of social exclusion or poverty ignore the murderers’ own vision of themselves as a superior species who carnivorously kill the vulnerable. This was not an attack by the poor against the rich or an underclass against its rulers, but rather the opposite. There are some very wealthy Copts but the majority are poor and defenceless.
A belief in the superiority of Muslims, meanwhile, is drummed into Egyptian schoolchildren from their earliest years through the state education system. This is reinforced by unequal laws (the president can only ever be a Muslim, for example) and practice (Copts were long excluded from senior positions in the police, army and even academia).
When I lived in Egypt, back in 1998, Copts made frequent complaints about a ban on new churches or even the repair of existing ones – a prohibition which didn’t seem to apply to mosques. Attacks on Copts in the course of disputes (as opposed to terrorism) would go virtually unpunished. In one appalling example, in al-Kosheh in 1999, 21 Copts and one Muslim were killed; only the killer of the Muslim was ever convicted.
Terrorism from Islamists often resulted in state repression, but also concessions, so Islamists gradually became more and more powerful. Not only did the mosques broadcast the call to prayer over huge loudspeakers, but even the sermons from the mosques would blare into every home.
The Islamists’ expanding role culminated in their victory at the ballot box in 2012, with the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi triumphing over the Jesuit-educated Ahmed Shafiq. Morsi deprived Copts of any serious government posts and released some of Egypt’s most notorious terrorists from jail.
By contrast, Morsi’s nemesis, the current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has been supportive of the Copts. He attended their Christmas liturgy, appointed Copts to some senior positions and has proceeded with reform of the education syllabus to give greater recognition to the role of Copts in Egyptian history. But Copts’ support for him has exposed them to attack. Despite his goodwill, Sisi has proved unable to protect them; yet they have nowhere else to turn.
Pope Francis is clearly taking a risk by making his two-day visit, which begins on April 28. Islamists have been operating in the Sinai peninsula since 2011, and these latest bombings show that they can strike in other parts of Egypt as well.
Killing the Pope would be an unparalleled coup for the terrorists, who in 2014 published an image of their black flag flying over St Peter’s Square. His many kindnesses towards Muslims would not deter them for a second.
Pope Francis is “serene” about the risks, according to the Vatican interfaith expert Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, but why is he taking them? He will be only the second pope in history to visit Egypt.
There are three things that the visit could achieve. The first is pastoral. There is a small Catholic population in Egypt: an autocephalous Church, comprised of fewer than 200,000 Copts who keep their distinctive rites but accept the authority of Rome. They will be delighted, of course, by this visit from the Holy Father.
The second is a gesture towards the Coptic Orthodox Church. This Church evolved quite separately from its equivalents in Europe, or even in the Arab world – being, if anything, an African Church, connected with that of Ethiopia, and tracing its origins back to St Mark. Its split with Rome is the second oldest in Christianity (after the Assyrian Church of the East’s), dating back to AD 451.
Much has recently been done to repair that rift. But as Egyptian nationalism is as potent today as it was in the 5th century, it is unlikely that the Coptic Patriarch (whose other title, confusingly, is “Pope”) will submit to Rome any time soon. Nonetheless, the Copts collectively will welcome this visit, especially as, after the Palm Sunday attacks, it is a brave and generous act of solidarity.
The involvement of Cardinal Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, is a clue that the visit has a third, more ambitious goal: to improve relations between Christians and Muslims generally. Is this realistic?
The Pope is going to the right place at the right time. Leaving aside for a moment the terrible Palm Sunday attack, Egypt more generally needs friends. Once the leader of the Arab world, it has long stagnated: the socialism of the charismatic Colonel Nasser in the 1960s left a legacy of overpopulation, corruption, army rule and unsustainable state spending.
Sisi’s attempted economic reforms have increased the pain, while a collapse in tourism, the country’s mainstay, has deferred any possible gain. President Donald Trump is a firm supporter, but a dispute with Saudi Arabia is alienating Egypt’s principal Arab funder while multiple missteps have put off Egypt’s European donors. Sisi could do with the Pope’s mediation.
Egypt has something to offer in return: not only is it the most populous Arab nation with the largest Christian minority, but it has also long claimed to house the most authoritative Islamic religious university, Al-Azhar. The institution’s leader, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, is a moderniser who has worn suits instead of his traditional djellaba. Like the rest of Egypt, though, Al-Azhar has grown tired. Its syllabus is rote-learnt, and (as one British imam explained to me) its exams are predictable and can easily be gamed. Its government links make it less credible (the sheikh himself is a member of the governing party).
Al-Azhar is not tough enough for hardliners. Nor is it truly liberal. It represents the old establishment of the Muslim world: conservative, state-affiliated, decent to non-Muslims without wanting to give them too many special favours. Like 19th-century Anglicanism, competing with more aggressive forms of Protestantism, it tries to chart a middle way. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia claims to surpass Al-Azhar with its own, generally more conservative clerical establishment.
The Pope has struck the right note for Islamic audiences. He has criticised Trump’s “Muslim ban”, housed Syrian refugees and condemned blasphemy against Islam. What is yet to be seen is how well that message has been heard and what difference it really makes. The Muslim world is more conservative than its Christian equivalent.
There is a hardness to contemporary Islam that we often underestimate, and also a presumption. A majority of Egyptians voted for Morsi, a man who wanted to reclaim southern Italy and Spain for Islam and to wage war on Ethiopia, his country’s nearest Christian neighbour. In such a context interfaith dialogue has too often been a dialogue of the deaf pretending to have ears.
The same hardness, by the way, is even stronger among the Christians of the region. Killing others is not their creed, but in terms of their own solidarity and steadfastness, they are as hard as nails. Hard as the nails of the Cross.
Gerard Russell is a former diplomat whose book on Middle Eastern religions, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, is published by Simon & Schuster UK. He is a trustee of Aradin, a charity dedicated to preserving the culture of historic minorities in the Middle East
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