Pope in Egypt: Strengthening weary Christians, reaching out to all

IMAGE: CNS photo/Olivier Douliery, EPA

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt, a land
increasingly marked by terrorist-led bloodshed, stands as part of his mission
to inspire and encourage today’s actors in theaters of violence to change the
script and set a new stage.

Just as the pope did when he raised the curtain of the Year
of Mercy in war-torn Central African Republic, he goes to strengthen and
“confirm his brothers of the Coptic Catholic Church and other churches
present in Egypt,” said Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the
Congregation for Eastern Churches.

He will be able to show, in person, his support and
solidarity for the beleaguered Christian minorities who continue to be targeted
by terrorist fanatics and increasingly feel vulnerable and unsafe in their own
land, said Maryknoll Father Douglas May, who worked in
Egypt for two decades.

Even though Christianity there traces its roots to the times
of the apostles, being a Christian in Egypt today “is like being black in
the United States before civil rights or being a Jew in Germany before Hitler.
You’re tolerated. But people don’t want to be tolerated, they want to be
accepted as citizens with equal rights and equal possibilities,” said the
67-year-old priest, who grew up near Buffalo, New York.

To make things even more difficult, there is “still a
very low level of ecumenical spirit” among many priests and bishops of the
different Christian communities, even though laypeople already have a sense
“that everybody is one: Protestants, Catholic and Orthodox.”

Church leadership “worries about who’s what”
Christian denomination, he said. But when Pope Francis goes to Cairo April
28-29 to embrace Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, Christians will see
“that we are all one family, even though we might have different last
names,” he told Catholic News Service April 20 by phone from a small
village in Upper Egypt.

“I think the biggest thing” that will come from
the trip, he said, is Pope Francis “will affirm that there is a certain
solidarity among Christians” and that “we are all related together by

An official visit by the Roman pontiff — the second in
history — will bolster lay Catholics, he said, just like St. John Paul II’s
landmark trip in 2000 did.

Many Catholics feel mistreated or maligned, he said; they
often are seen as “heretics” by biased Orthodox and “referred to
as infidels or idol worshippers” by prejudiced Muslims.

But “when John Paul came, it was the first time a
Catholic could be proud and excited to be a Catholic and a Christian at the same
time,” said the priest, who was in Egypt at the time. That joyful pride
should be “the biggest impact” Pope Francis will make.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, former nuncio to Egypt and
past president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said the
Catholic presence “is both enriched and weakened by the fact of being made
up of seven distinct churches: Coptic Catholic, Melkite, Maronite, Syrian
Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Chaldean and Latin.”

While that shows Catholicism’s rich diversity, it comes
“at the price of a lack of cohesion,” he told CNS in an email
response to questions.

Egypt has the largest Christian population in the Middle
East, but the Roman Catholic Church is the country’s smallest, with about
250,000 members compared to the 9 million-10 million Coptic Orthodox, he wrote.

However, the presence of so many men’s and women’s religious
congregations working in the fields of education, medical care and social work
and the important and much respected work of Caritas Egypt mean the Catholic
Church “punches over its weight,” said Archbishop Fitzgerald.

Father May spent many years doing priestly formation for the
Coptic Catholic Church, and, in fact, he taught and was the spiritual director
of Msgr. Yoannis Lahzi Gaid, one of the pope’s personal secretaries in Rome and
the man who will be translating for the pope in Egypt.

Father May said he sought to teach the seminarians to leave
the church walls, actively work in the risky world of social justice and be
open to the help and goodwill of all people.

The impact on the Coptic Catholic priests he taught has been
huge, he said. One of his many former students who are now paving new paths of
interreligious and ecumenical initiatives powered by the participation of lay
men and women, he said, is Father Boulos Nassif, whose work is featured in a
Prison Fellowship International documentary titled “A Story of
Friendship,” which can be found on YouTube.

Father Nassif founded the Hand in Hand prison ministry when
Muslim families wanted the same kind of services and care he was offering Catholic
and other Christian prisoners and their families. But fears of being accused of
proselytizing led him to ask for help from the local sheik, Father May said,
and now the two communities work together, not separately, which is highly

Father May said the problems facing Egypt’s Christians come
from “several sources,” including al-Alzhar University, which is
considered the world’s highest authority on Sunni Islam.

Many Christians feel “the voice from al-Alzhar is not
strong enough against all this fanaticism, and it may even be affirming
it,” he said.

The country’s huge economic difficulties and high
unemployment also make minorities an easy target as “someone to
blame,” he added.

“My hope is that Francis, with that smile of his, when
he shakes hands” with the many dignitaries and religious leaders, all the
negative baggage and attitudes “can maybe erode a little bit” and the
whole nation can see what respect, dialogue and friendship look like.

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Follow Glatz on Twitter @CarolGlatz.


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