During the first papal visit to Egypt in the year 2000, Pope John Paul II addressed a gathering of Christians and Muslims. “We do not know each other sufficiently,” he said, “let us therefore find ways to meet.” Egyptians have, unfortunately, had to wait for almost two decades to meet the Successor of Peter again. On April 28 Pope Francis will touch down in Cairo for one of the most significant trips of his pontificate.
Papal visits are usually prepared months (if not years) in advance. This one is different: the trip was announced on Saturday, just weeks before it will take place. Why has the Vatican scrambled to arrange the journey? To answer that we need to consider who issued the invitation: the Coptic Catholic bishops, the Coptic Orthodox pope, the grand imam of al-Azhar and the Egyptian president.
The Coptic Catholic Church is a tiny entity, numbering just 175,000 members in a country of 82 million. Nevertheless, it enjoys a certain prestige because of its connection with the papacy. A successful papal visit will enhance its reputation as a mediator between Egypt’s factions.
Pope Tawadros II is the leader of Egypt’s 10 to 14 million Coptic Orthodox Christians (no one knows the true figure: it is deemed too politically sensitive). A former manager of a pharmaceutical factory, he was elected in 2012 when a blindfolded child picked his name out of a glass bowl containing the names of two other candidates. He is highly regarded by Pope Francis, who described him as “a mystic” after seeing him remove his shoes before entering a chapel to pray. Tawadros hopes that Francis will bring comfort and international attention to his persecuted flock, which traces its origins back to St Mark the Evangelist.
Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, is regarded (not entirely accurately) as the spiritual leader of the world’s Sunni Muslims. In 2011, he suspended dialogue with the Holy See after Benedict XVI asked, quite reasonably, if Egypt was doing enough to protect Christians. But al-Tayeb is not, in fact, a hardliner. The Sorbonne-educated thinker believes in “moderation and dialogue among civilisations”, opposes the niqab (face veil) and rejects ISIS as “false Islam”. After unfreezing relations, he visited Pope Francis last year. The papal visit will underline his position as one of the globe’s foremost Muslim authorities and Al-Azhar’s claim to represent an older, more authentic version of Islam.
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in 2014 with the implicit support of al-Tayeb and Tawadros II. Nicknamed the Quiet General owing to his disciplined, taciturn nature, el-Sisi has strongly promoted religious pluralism. In 2015, the former army chief became the first Egyptian president to attend a Coptic Christmas liturgy. He hopes that the papal visit will strengthen interfaith relations and isolate extremists.
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