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

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Dale Gavlak

AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) — 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, told CNS. 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

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

“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. “

Father Samir also pointed to
another challenge.

“In the last five to six
years, there is a new element, the militarization of radical Islam,” he
said. The scholar blames the United States and some European countries for
providing arms to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which allegedly finance radical
Islamic movements.

“The problem is much
larger. It’s a question of rethinking Islam,” Father Samir said.

Pope Francis also met with
Egyptian seminarians, priests and religious before wrapping up his Cairo visit,
leaving a deep impression on them, too.

“He greatly encouraged us
to live a life dedicated to Christ, the living hope. And to instill that hope
in all we minister to: the disabled, the poor and disadvantaged,” Father
Shenouda Andraos, the head of St. Leo Great Coptic Catholic Seminary, told CNS.

– – –

Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at

Original Article