Pope's Egypt visit likely to fall short of anti-terrorism goal
Pope Francis' visit to Egypt bears the announced purpose of inciting interfaith dialogue as a step to combatting terrorism.
It comes in response to an invitation by both Cairo's al-Azhar, which is the world's foremost seat of Sunni Islamic theology and the Egyptian presidency, as part of efforts to counter extremism.
Analysts and even clergymen are nevertheless sceptical, seeing the visit as a good first step towards the resurrection of interfaith dialogue, but not combatting terrorism.
"Interfaith dialogue is important in itself, but it is no antidote for extremism or terrorism", the chief of the religious freedoms unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Ishak Ibrahim, told journalists.
As Ibrahim sees it, al-Azhar's invitation to Pope Francis could be merely an attempt to reintroduce itself "under the pressure of the presidency and the public in demand of reforming Islamic religious discourse."
Al-Azhar, a Muslim Sunni institution and university, has been subject to sharp criticism by the administration which demands developing a fresh religious approach that clearly distinguishes Islam from extremism. President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi instructed al-Azhar to reform religious discourse in 2015, in the wake of a streak of violent attacks mostly claimed by the Islamic State extremist militia.
According to al-Sisi, terrorism originates from misunderstanding Islam.
In the aftermath of two bloody attacks on two churches in the cities of Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday, which killed at least 46 people, criticism poured on al-Azhar's curricula. It has been accused of tolerating violence and terrorism.
Father William Sedhom thinks that the main winner of the Pope's visit is al-Sisi, for the visit will be taken as "a sign of confidence from the Catholic Church in his administration and his ability to protect the country and its Christians."
The "main incentive behind the invitation is political", says Sedhom, the secretary general of Egypt's office of the Catholic Institution for Justice and Peace volunteering group. Yet, credibility will be at stake if "measures that limit terrorism were not taken", he says.
Sedhom attributes much widespread extremism to Islamic religious education, whose teachings present Islam as the only truth.
"This seeds hatred into the children. It makes them much less accepting to anyone different."
On the other hand, al-Azhar insists it is "exerting intense efforts to enhance citizenship, diversity and integration between all peoples, civilisations and cultures," al-Azhar undersecretary, Abbas Shouman, said in a press statement on Wednesday.
Bishop of the Egyptian Coptic Catholic Church, Father Ishak Ibrahim, however, says it is the role of political authority, not religious institutions, to fight terrorism, as it is the one obliged to regulate relations between the state and the citizens. He also called for change within the church.
"The church also must change its narrative that applauds isolation and withdrawal from the society. The church needs its own type of change," Ibrahim said. He affirmed that, for his part, "dialogue with Muslims is our only option. We will continue to attempt tackling sticking points and expressing ourselves clearly."
Dialogue between al-Azhar and the Vatican only resumed in 2016 after 5 years of contention. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI demanded Egypt protect its Christians in response to a deadly attack against a key church in Alexandria. Al-Azhar took the statement as interference in Egyptian affairs and suspended talks.
Both Ishak Ibrahim and Father Sedhom seemed to agree that Egyptian political institutions understand the importance of religious reform. They both were also sceptic about the ability to put that will into action.
"So far no one has told us what the meaning of reforming religious discourse means," Ibrahim said. "A lot of questions are still unanswered."
Father Sedhom was similarly sceptical. "There is indeed the will to change, but it is a crippled desire," he said. "And the Pope is not a sorcerer. He is only an honest man who is trying to help." (dpa)
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