Pope Francis visits Egypt with message of peace

Mahmoud Aziz , Thursday 27 Apr 2017

Pope in Egypt
A man looks on near a billboard ahead of Pope Francis’ visit in Cairo, Egypt April 26, 2017 (Photo: Reuters)

‎"Please pray for my journey tomorrow as a pilgrim of peace to Egypt", tweeted Roman ‎Catholic Pope Francis one day before he starts his visit to Egypt.‎

The Pope is set to arrive in Cairo on Friday for an official two-day visit, the first such papal ‎trip to the country since the late Pope John Paul II visited in 2000.‎

Pope Francis – who is set to depart from Fiumicino airport in Rome and arrive at Cairo ‎International Airport at 2pm – received an official invitation to visit Egypt from President ‎Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi when they met at the Vatican in 2014.‎

After an official reception at the airport, the pope is scheduled to meet with El-Sisi at the ‎presidential palace in Cairo before heading to Al-Azhar to meet with its Grand Imam Sheikh ‎Ahmed El-Tayeb.‎

He is also planning to meet with a number of other high-level Egyptian officials.‎

The pope and the grand imam are planned to speak at the International Peace Conference ‎set to kick off in Cairo on Thursday.‎

Pope Francis will then head to the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo to meet with Coptic ‎Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, where the two will give a public speech after their meeting.‎

The two leaders will go together to the nearby church of Sts. Peter and Paul, which had been bombed during a Sunday Mass in December 2016, killing 24 people and injuring at least 45 others.

The leaders of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic churches met Pope Francis for ‎the first time in 2013 at the Vatican, where they stressed the importance of strengthening the bonds of ‎friendship and brotherhood between their churches.‎

On Saturday, Pope Francis will be hosted at the Air Defence sports Stadium on the outskirts of Cairo.‎

About 25,000 people from all over Egypt are expected to attend the event, which will start ‎at 7am and will see three hours of Christian hymns performed in Arabic, French and Italian, ‎with a mass led by Pope Francis to start at 10am. ‎

According to sources in the event’s organising committee, 25,000 Egyptian and Vatican flags ‎have been printed in preparation for the event, as well as 25,000 hats to protect attendees ‎from the sun. The temperature is expected to exceed 30 degrees Celsius on Saturday.‎

The event will see a screening of a film on how 54 churches were attacked by extremists in ‎Egypt after the June 2013 protests that lead to the toppling of Islamist president Mohamed ‎Morsi. ‎

The film will also show how the state renovated the churches.‎

The pope, who has refused to use a bulletproof vehicle during his trip to Egypt despite ‎recent terror attacks, will greet the attendees in a golf cart, the source said.‎

The pope also will also use a golf cart to circulate among more than 1,000 seminarians and ‎clergy members expected to attend an outdoor prayer service at the Coptic Catholic ‎Church's St. Leo's Patriarchal Seminary in the Cairo suburb of Maadi at the same day.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke confirmed on Tuesday that "the pope will use a closed car ‎to move around [Cairo], but not an armoured one."‎

‎“That's how he wanted it," he added. The pope will head back to Rome on Saturday at 5pm.‎

Timing and significance

The pope’s visit comes in the same month when two suicide bombers launched attacks on ‎two Coptic churches in Tanta and Alexandria on Palm Sunday, killing 47 people and injuring ‎dozens in the deadliest attacks against Christians in Egypt’s recent history.‎

Pope Tawadros II was performing mass inside the cathedral in Alexandria at the time of the ‎attack, though he was not injured.‎

Pope Francis responded to the attacks by saying “may the Lord convert the hearts of those ‎who sow fear, violence and terror… And that of those who produce and sell weapons.”‎

Following the attacks, Pope Francis insisted that his visit to Egypt, which was planned prior ‎to the bombings, should go forward as scheduled.‎

Egyptian Copts, the largest and oldest Christian community in the Middle East, have been ‎the target of a wave of terrorist attacks in recent months. Four major bombings have ‎targeted churches in Egypt since 2011.‎

On Tuesday, Pope Francis gave a televised speech in which he addressed Egyptians, saying ‎he wished his visit to Egypt would mark a fruitful contribution to interreligious dialogue ‎with the followers of Islam and to ecumenical dialogue with the “venerable and beloved” ‎Coptic Orthodox Church.‎

‎"With a heart full of joy and gratitude I will soon visit your beloved country, the cradle of ‎civilisation, the gift of the Nile, the land of sun and hospitality, the land where Patriarchs ‎and Prophets lived, and where God, Benevolent and Merciful, the Almighty and One God, ‎made his voice heard," the pope said.‎

He also stressed that his visit comes to convey affection, comfort and encouragement for ‎all the Christians of the Middle East, a message of friendship and respect for all the ‎inhabitants of Egypt and the region, and a message of brotherhood.‎

Rights activist Mina Thabet, a senior researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and ‎Freedoms, says the visit represents a message of solidarity and encouragement to Egypt’s ‎Copts after the recent attacks against Christians, praising what he described as the pope’s ‎policy of building bridges between the East and the West.‎

In December 2016, a suicide bomber attacked a church adjoining Cairo’s St Mark’s ‎Cathedral – the seat of the Coptic papacy – killing at least 28 people, mostly women and ‎children.‎

Thabet says that the pope’s insistence on going forward with his visit despite the most ‎recent attacks “represents a humanitarian principle adopted by Pope Francis, as well as a ‎message of comfort and support to Egypt’s Copts.”‎

First papal visit to Azhar

Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt's Al-Azhar will be the first-ever visit by a Roman Catholic Pope to ‎Sunni Islam’s oldest religious institution.‎

In February, Al-Azhar and the Vatican agreed to work together to combat terrorism and ‎extremism after a two-day seminar on the topic in Cairo.‎

The seminar came up with a number of recommendations, including fostering dialogue ‎between the two institutions and tackling the causes of extremism and violence, which ‎include poverty, illiteracy and misinterpretation of religious doctrine.‎

Dialogue between the 1,000-year-old Islamic institution and the Vatican was frozen for ‎years after Al-Azhar cut relations over comments made in 2006 by the former Pope ‎Benedict XVI that were deemed insulting to Islam.‎

In May 2016, relations between the two religious institutions began to improve when Pope ‎Francis met with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, in the Vatican.‎

Spokesman of Al-Azhar University Ahmed Zarea told Ahram Online that the papal visit is ‎considered historic in terms of timing and significance, and is a very important step to ‎enhancing dialogue between religions.‎

‎"The visit magnifies Egypt’s pivotal role in leading dialogue between religions and stresses ‎that Islam, like all Abrahamic religions, shares the same principles of peace, love and ‎mutual co-existence," Zarea said.‎

‎"What unifies us in Egypt is far more than what separates us, our national unity has been ‎protected by Al-Azhar and the Egyptian church for hundreds of years, and all the latest ‎incidents faced by our society are due to certain global circumstances and disputes," he ‎affirmed.‎

The head of Egypt's Catholic Church Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak also welcomed the visit by Pope ‎Francis, describing it as a message of peace and stability for the whole world.‎

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