Pope Francis arrived in Egypt on Friday, only the second visit by a Catholic Pope to the country after Pope John Paul II travelled there in 2000. Reuters:
Francis’s trip, aimed at improving Christian-Muslim ties, comes just three weeks after Islamic State suicide bombers killed at least 45 people in two Egyptian churches.
“Let us say once more a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God,” the pope told a peace conference at Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, Al-Azhar. [….]
Eschewing the armoured motorcades normally reserved for visiting heads of state, the 80-year-old pontiff instead clambered into a simple Fiat car on his arrival, and, with his window wound down, drove off into the heavily guarded capital.
“Pope of Peace in Egypt of Peace,” read posters plastered along the largely deserted road leading from the airport.
Christians have had little peace in Egypt in recent years. Campaigns of harassment, vandalism, and violence throughout the country have reached their perverse apotheosis in ISIS’ Palm Sunday bombings and other attacks on churches, but Christians have been fleeing the country by the tens of thousands since the 2011 revolution.
Copts have been broadly supportive of the government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi which has certainly been more supportive of Christians than the Muslim Brotherhood government of former President Morsi. Still, the Sisi government continues to fail Copts in important ways. The lack of security demonstrated by the Palm Sunday bombings, sectarian disputes that continue to be settled by “customary reconciliation councils” (to the benefit of the Muslim majority) rather than by law, and perhaps most insidiously, given its regional influence, failure to reign in the extremist and anti-Christian tendencies of the University of al-Azhar—one of the oldest and most important religious training centers in Sunni Islam—have all contributed to a growing impatience with Sisi among Egypt’s Copts.
Pope Francis’ visit comes at a difficult time for Christians in Egypt and the wider Middle East. One would hope that Pope Francis finds more success in improving Christian-Muslim ties than his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who traveled to Egypt in the hope of converting the Ayyubid sultan to Christianity during the Fifth Crusade. The devout Sisi seems unlikely to convert, but he might be convinced of taking more action to preserve the largest Christian community in the Middle East.