Catholic leaders: Papal trip was blessing for Christian, Muslim Egyptians

Paul Haring | Catholic News Service
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AMMAN, Jordan — Pope Francis' historic, 72-hour visit to Cairo has left a profound mark on Egyptians, Catholic leaders said, as they anticipate increased ties with fellow Orthodox Christians and Muslims.

"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," Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the Egyptian bishops, told Catholic News Service by phone. "He gave a message of love, peace and hope."

Father Greiche referred to a pair of terrorist attacks 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, said. 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 Father Samir.

"In Egypt, there are a lot of mixed marriages between Catholics and Orthodox," Father Samir explained, citing the previous Coptic Orthodox requirement that new members joining the church — including those who had previously been baptized as Catholic — had to be baptized again.

"This was very unhappy," he said. Now both churches agreed to recognize 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," Father 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, Father 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 Savior 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.

However, Pope Francis' call to expose extremist violence carried out in God's name impacted Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, who heads al-Azhar University in Cairo. He hosted the International Peace Conference attended by Pope Francis, Pope Tawadros and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the Eastern Orthodox churches.

Although "ISIS will not listen to whatever the pope says," Pope Francis has now put the Vatican's relationship with al-Azhar on a stronger footing, said Father Samir.

As the world's highest authority in Sunni Islam, al-Azhar trains Muslim clerics and scholars from around the world and has the potential to change the discourse.

Critics, including el-Sissi, complain the university is not doing enough to properly challenge Islamist extremists on theological grounds. However, scholars also point to a dichotomy in the Quran in which Islam's Prophet Muhammad at times espoused peaceful interactions with Christians and Jews and at other times violence.

By emphasizing nonviolence and that "only peaceful means are acceptable, it will help some Muslims to go along this line — to be nonviolent," Father Samir said. "The main thing is change the mentality of Muslims, especially of the teaching of Islam, which is mainly the teaching in al-Azhar. " 


Pope, Coptic patriarch honor martyrs, urge unity

CAIRO — Placing flowers, lighting a candle and praying at the site where dozens of Coptic Orthodox Christians were killed by an Islamic State militant last year, Pope Francis and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II paid homage to those who were killed for their faith. Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros walked in a short procession to the Church of St. Peter, where 29 people died and 31 were wounded Dec. 11. The faithful chanted a song of martyrs, and some clashed cymbals under the darkened evening sky. Inside the small church, the leaders of several other Christian communities in Egypt as well as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople sat before the congregation, which included family members of the victims. The leaders read a verse from the Beatitudes, and lit a candle in the back of the church.

Joint declaration on baptism

CAIRO — In a historic and significant move toward greater Christian unity, Pope Tawadros and Pope Francis signed an agreement to end a longtime disagreement between the two churches over the sacrament of baptism. The Coptic Orthodox Church had required new members joining from most non-Coptic churches — including those who had previously been baptized as Catholic — to be baptized again. The Catholic Church recognizes all Christian baptisms performed with water and in "the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Orthodox who enter the Catholic Church are received as full members, but not baptized again. In the joint declaration, the two leaders "mutually declare that we, with one mind and heart, will seek sincerely not to repeat the baptism that has been administered in either of our churches for any person who wishes to join the other."

Pope: Unmask violence posing as holy

CAIRO — Calling his visit to Egypt a journey of "unity and fraternity," Pope Francis launched a powerful call to the nation's religious leaders to expose violence masquerading as holy and condemn religiously inspired hatred as an idolatrous caricature of God. "Peace alone, therefore, is holy, and no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God, for it would profane his name," the pope told Muslim and Christian leaders at an international peace conference April 28. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople was in attendance. Pope Francis also warned of attempts to fight violence with violence, saying "every unilateral action that does not promote constructive and shared processes is, in reality, a gift to the proponents of radicalism and violence."

True faith means loving others to the extreme

CAIRO — The only kind of fanaticism that is acceptable to God is being fanatical about loving and helping others, Pope Francis said on his final day in Egypt. "True faith," he told Catholics, "makes us more charitable, more merciful, more honest and more humane. It moves our hearts to love everyone without counting the cost." The pope celebrated an open-air Mass April 29 in Cairo's Air Defense Stadium, built by the anti-aircraft branch of the Egyptian armed forces. The pope concelebrated with Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak of Alexandria and leaders of the other Catholic rites in Egypt.

Pope: U.S., North Korea need diplomatic solution to escalating tensions

ABOARD THE PAPAL FLIGHT FROM CAIRO — A diplomatic solution must be found to the escalating tension between North Korea and the United States, Pope Francis told journalists. "The path (to take) is the path of negotiation, the path of a diplomatic solution," he said when asked about U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to send Navy warships to the region in response to North Korea's continued missile tests and threats to launch nuclear strikes against South Korea, Japan and the United States. "What do you say to these leaders who hold responsibility for the future of humanity," the pope was asked, during a Q-and-A with journalists on the flight to Rome April 29 after a 27-hour trip to Cairo."I always call (for) resolving problems through the diplomatic path, negotiations" because the future of humanity depends on it, he said.

— Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service 

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