View From Rome
27 April 2017
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Eight hundred years ago a pair of bare-footed Franciscan friars crossed the bloody battle lines of a Muslim-Christian conflict in order to make an appeal for peace.
One of them was St Francis of Assisi, who in 1219 risked mutilation and death to meet with the Sultan of Egypt, al-Malik al-Kamil, during the Fifth Crusade. After their meeting, al-Malik ensured that Francis was escorted safely back to the Christian camp. The encounter has gone down in history as an important moment in Christian-Muslim relations. Yesterday another Francis, the Pope from Argentina who named himself after the poor man from Assisi, ignored worries about his own safety to make his own symbolically powerful gesture of peace.
His trip to Egypt comes as violence against the ancient Christian community in the country is on the rise, with 45 killed in two attacks on Palm Sunday, including one in the precincts of a church in Alexandria inside which the Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros had just finished celebrating Mass.
Security is understandably tight for the papal visit, although Francis has requested that he should use a “normal” car and not a bulletproof vehicle. He will not travel round in an open-top popemobile, and instead is expected to greet crowds at Mass today in a golf cart. This trip is all about building bridges with the Islamic world, with the crucial moment coming when the Pope visits Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque and University to address a conference on peace. Al-Azhar is an important centre of Sunni Islam, with international expertise in the interpretation of the Qu’ran. Its prestige in the Muslim world makes it a vital ally in ensuring that Islamists who claim that passages justify jihadi terrorism are denied popular support.
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