Pope in Egypt trip eyes anti-terrorism alliance with Muslims
This week Pope Francis will become the second Catholic Church leader to visit Egypt as he embarks on a peace-focused journey to a country at the heart of the Middle East's political and religious tensions.
The run-up to the April 28-29 trip was marred by three attacks, claimed by the Islamic State extremist militia, on Christian sites in mostly Muslim Egypt.
On 9 April, suicide bombings at two Coptic churches killed at least 46 people on Palm Sunday. Ten days later, a policeman died in an attack on a checkpoint outside the historic St Catherine Monastery in volatile Sinai.
"What happened is troubling and very painful, but it cannot stop the pope's peace mission," Archbishop Angelo Becciu, who acts as the Vatican's deputy prime minister, told Italian daily Corriere della Sera after the church attacks.
Francis' motto for the trip is "Pope of Peace in Egypt of Peace." His decision to go ahead with the visit has drawn praise in Egypt.
"The pope's visit, despite what has happened in the last days, confirms to the world that Egypt is safe and stable," Bishop Emanuel Ayad, the head of the organising committee for the visit, said.
"Terrorism is not an Egyptian issue. It is a global issue and the world should join hands to rout terrorism. The core of religions is working for peace. This is the main message of the visit," Ayad told Egyptian television.
The highlight of Francis' schedule is an international peace conference on Friday at Cairo's al-Azhar, the world's foremost seat of Sunni Islamic theology, hosted by Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of the institution. Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox church and the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox world, were also scheduled to attend.
The meeting cements a thaw in relations with al-Azhar, which the Vatican hopes can contribute to building a global moral wake-up call against religious intolerance and the threat posed by Islamic State.
"Today we can have a dialogue with Islam, with al-Azhar, on the search for peace, on the fight against terrorism. To have a dialogue, we need people with open hearts and minds," the Vatican's envoy to Egypt, Monsignor Bruno Musaro, told Italian Catholic news agency SIR.
Christians are among the oldest religious communities in the Middle East, but their numbers have dwindled in the face of wars and persecution. Egypt has the largest Christian community of the region, accounting for around 10 percent of the country's 92 million population.
The community does not have it easy, according to Father Douglas May, a US-born Catholic missionary priest.
Being a Christian in Egypt "is like being black in the United States before civil rights or being a Jew in Germany before Hitler," May told the Catholic News Service. "You're tolerated. But people don't want to be tolerated, they want to be accepted as citizens with equal rights and equal possibilities," he was quoted as saying.
Most Egyptian Christians are Coptic. Catholics make up for a minority of about 0.3 percent of the population, split between seven distinct churches: Coptic Catholic, Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Chaldean and Latin.
Francis is also due to meet Egyptian President Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi, who as army chief led the 2013 overthrow of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.
Since he took office in 2014, al-Sisi has courted the country's Christians to an extent unseen for decades. Several commentators suggest that the support of al-Sisi, a sworn enemy of radical Islam, has made Christians in Egypt bigger terrorist targets.
Others question whether it is right for Francis to rub shoulders with a former general with a dubious human rights record.
"Of course a pope can do whatever he wants, but if he goes and shakes the hand of a murderous dictator like al-Sisi, he cannot expect to maintain any moral credibility," Italian analyst Massimo Fini wrote in Il Fatto Quotidiano daily last week.
Arriving in a country under a state of emergency declared in response to the April 9 terrorist attacks, Francis' visit will take place under tight security, with no use of his traditional open-top pope mobile.
But the pope is no stranger to wading into dangerous terrain. In 2015, he opened the Jubilee of Mercy festival in civil war-stricken Central African Republic and used the occasion to call on Christians and Muslims to unite against violence.
The Egypt pilgrimage is the Argentine pontiff's 17th trip abroad and follows visits to other Muslim-majority lands like Turkey, Palestine and Bosnia. John Paul II was the only other Vatican leader to visit Egypt, in 2000. (dpa)
Related articles on Qantara.de: