During the sweltering heat of an Egyptian summer, a pair of humble friars wearing rough robes and walking on bare feet ignored the scoffing of knights on a fifth crusade to the Holy Land to cross to the Muslim forces and appeal for peace. One of the friars was St Francis of Assisi, the famous founder of the Franciscan order, and his meeting with Islamic leader Sultan Al-Kamil of Egypt has gone down in history as a powerful moment of Christian/Muslim relationships.
Nearly 800 years later and another Francis, a Pope who named himself after the iconic saint of poverty and peace, is travelling to Egypt on what will be a highly symbolic bridge-building mission with the Islamic world. It couldn’t be more timely.
His 36-hour trip comes at a time of increased violence in the country with bomb attacks on two Coptic Christian churches taking place on Palm Sunday killing 45 people, one in the Nile Delta city of Tanta and the other in Alexandria. Responsibility for the attacks has been claimed by Islamic State (IS), which has been gaining a foothold in the country.
The main focus of Francis’ short trip will be dialogue and diplomacy, a moment where a global Christian leader travels to the cradle of civilisation and a city known as “the mother of the world.” More than anything he says, the Pope’s presence and appeals for peace in such an important Islamic country will provide a powerful counter-narrative to the idea that religions are the cause of violence or that Islam and Christianity are involved in a clash of civilisations.
Nevertheless, the recent instability in Egypt has led President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to declare a state of emergency in the country meaning that security will be extremely tight throughout the Pope’s visit. In a briefing with journalists a spokesman for the Holy See said that they were not worried about security problems and that the Pope will not use a bulletproof vehicle.
POPE IN EGYPT 2017
When he is in Cairo, the Latin American pontiff will be keen to help Islam in any way he can turn from the ideology which inspires terrorists: he will call on all religions to condemn any violence committed in the name of God. His past denouncement of terrorist atrocities as separate from the faith of Islam has won him respect across the Muslim world as a religious leader worth listening to.
This respect among Muslim leaders means that all eyes will be on the major set-piece event of his Cairo trip: a speech to a conference on peace organised by Al-Azhar, the 10th century mosque and university that has been a centre of academic thought in the Sunni-Islamic world for more than a thousand years. Al-Azhar plays a crucial role in interpretation of the Koran, an important task given it is texts from this holy book that are used to justify terrorism of Sunni-ideologues of Islamic IS.
Al-Azhar, which runs a network of schools, a linguistic centre and a medical faculty, plays an important role in Egyptian national life with the Grand Imam, Ahmed el-Tayeb, appointed by the Government and holds the the rank of Prime Minister. The Pope’s trip also takes place soon after the Vatican and Al-Azhar recently re-established formal ties while last year Francis met Sheikh el-Tayeb last year in what has been a patient rebuilding of links.
Relations between the Holy See and Egypt have been tense in the past with Cairo withdrawing their Ambassador to the Vatican in 2011 after Benedict XVI called for greater protection of Christian minorities in the country. Al-Azhar then quickly followed suit, who were also offended by Benedict’s famous 2006 Regensburg lecture which quoted a 14th century Byzantine Emperor complaining that the Prophet Mohammed brought only what was “evil and inhuman” and spread faith “by the sword.” While Benedict’s speech damaged diplomacy, it ironically sparked a renewed Catholic-Islamic dialogue with a letter from 138 Muslim scholars a year after Regensburg starting the “common word” forum.
While the Holy See maintains good diplomatic links across the Arab world - including Shia-dominated Iran - they have often voiced concern about the lack of religious freedom for Christians in Islamic countries. Given recent attacks, Francis is expected to raise the plight of persecuted Christians, who make up around 10 per cent of the country’s 92 million population. And the attacks on religious and ethnic minorities by extremists is a concern for Muslims: a prominent British Imam and former student of Al-Azhar, recently met with the Pope and then lobbied Vatican officials on the matter.
“I’m sure His Holiness will register his concern and remind Muslim leaders in Egypt and political leaders that it is their religious and political duties to safeguard the religious rights - and the human rights - of the minority communities,” Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra told The Tablet this month.
A Vatican diplomatic source warned, however, that when Francis does raise the matter he should be careful not to overly criticise the government for Christian persecution, a trap that Benedict XVI fell into. “The attacks are very difficult to control,” the source said. “How are you going to prevent them? It's very difficult. They have taken measures to increase power but that doesn’t go down well with the Western World.”
el-Sisi came to power in a military coup, overthrowing Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood who had been swept to power in 2011 elections following the “Arab Spring”, which was expected to herald the birth of democracy in North Africa and the Middle East. In order to keep control of Egypt, el-Sisi’s military regime has cracked down on dissent and has been accused of trampling over human rights. Ties between Italy and Egypt have been strained by the case of Giulio Regeni, an Italian who was a postgraduate student at the University of Cambridge. He was tortured and murdered while spending time in Cairo researching the country’s trade unions. The strong suspicion is that the country’s security services were responsible for his ordeal.
Sources on the ground say that since being unseated the Brotherhood have been involved in a sort of civil war with the country’s army while Islamic State has been able to recruit disaffected members of the movement. Given the rise in extremism there are those who believe that the Pope is naive in his approach to the Muslim world.
"The Pope comes from Argentina. He doesn't know Islam,” Father Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian Jesuit told reporters in Rome earlier this month. "In my opinion, his lack of knowledge about Islam does not help dialogue." He said that the Islamic State, and Muslim Brotherhood were trying to “Islamise” countries in North Africa and the Middle East while stressing that the vast majority of Muslims are opposed to the “inhuman crimes” of violence.
Egyptians like Samir feel understandably vulnerable given the driving out of ancient Christian communities in the Middle East. His country is, after all, the land of Jesus who, in the Gospel of St Matthew, took refuge in Egypt from the wrath of Herod the Great 2,000 years ago. The faith was brought to the country by St Mark the evangelist and spread during the Early Church period: after the Arab-Muslim takeover of Egypt there were for long periods Christians, Muslims and Jews lived peacefully alongside one another.
During his visit, Francis will meet with the Coptic Orthodox leader, Pope Tawadros II, who had been present in one of the churches attacked on Palm Sunday. In a sign of ecumenical solidarity Francis is to be joined in Cairo by the “first among equals” leader of global orthodoxy, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. The Copts, which stands at 9 million, broke off from western Christendom in 451AD following disagreement over the Council of Chalcedon's definition of Christ’s divine and human nature. They continue to represent a living link with of the world’s oldest Christian communities.
As for Catholics in communion with Rome they are made up of 272,000 and are divided up into seven sub-groups. These include a Latin-Rite community; Coptic Catholics; Greek Melkites; Maronites; Syrian Catholics; Armenians and Chaldeans.
These churches spring from immigrant communities and during the Ottoman Empire of the 19th century played an important role in the renaissance of Arab culture. While relations between Catholics loyal to Rome and Coptic Orthodox had been tense the new Pope Tawadros has helped improve things.
The presence of these Christians in a Muslim-dominated country show that co-existence has been, and is still, possible. This is only possible if members of both faiths are willing, in the first instance to, build friendships with one another. This practical dialogue is something that Francis has pushed for both during his time in Argentina and as Pope. And he follows in the footsteps of John Paul II who made the first ever papal visit to Egypt in 2000 and also appealed for Muslim-Christian harmony.
It’s now a long time since Pope’s commanded armies to go on crusades, but the question of violent conflict in the name of God has not gone away. These conflicts, Francis has said, are often driven by power, land and money - but he also believes that religious leaders have a responsibility to do something about them.