Pope Francis is brushing off security concerns to forge ahead with a two-day trip to Egypt aimed at presenting a united Christian-Muslim front that repudiates violence committed in God’s name.
Three weeks after Islamic militants staged twin Palm Sunday church attacks, Francis has just landed in Cairo for a series of deeply symbolic encounters with Egypt’s religious and political leadership. He will meet with Egypt’s president, patriarch and the “other” pope, Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and pray for victims of the attacks.
Most importantly, he will also visit Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of learning in Sunni Islam. There, he will meet privately with grand imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, and participate in an international peace conference on Friday afternoon.
The goal is to bring a message of peace to a country that has been ravaged by Islamic extremist attacks, and encourage a culture of respect and tolerance for religious minorities, said Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state.
“The fundamental issue is education, and educating those of different religious beliefs and especially the young, to have great respect for those of other faiths,” Parolin told the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.
“The question of language is fundamental: when you use a violent language, there is the danger that it can result in violent acts.”
After visiting Al-Azhar, Francis will meet Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and then head to the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which accounts for about 10 per cent of Egypt’s 92 million people.
Francis and Tawadros will preside over an ecumenical prayer service in St. Peter’s church, the Coptic cathedral that was the site of a December suicide bombing claimed by Islamic State militants that killed 30 people.
Francis has frequently spoken out about today’s Christian martyrs and the “ecumenism of blood” that has united Catholic, Orthodox and other Christians targeted for their faith by Islamic militants.
Parolin said he hoped Francis’ visit might help convince them to “stay in their countries despite the difficulties and continue to give their Christian testimony in a majority Muslim society.”
While Francis eschewed the armoured popemobile his predecessors used on foreign trips, other security precautions were taken for the 27 hours he will be on the ground in Cairo; streets around the Coptic Orthodox cathedral and the Vatican embassy were cleared of cars, and police swarmed the upscale Cairo neighbourhood where Francis will stay.