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Egypt: Pope Francis visits Egypt despite security concerns
03 May 2017
Despite security concerns in the wake of two bombings on Palm Sunday, Pope Francis (head of the Catholic Church) visited Cairo at the weekend to deliver a message of unity and peace.
On his first day, speaking at an International Peace Conference, Pope Francis said that 'violence is the denial of every true religion' and called on religious leaders to not hesitate to expose the violence and its perpetrators. He later raised the plight of persecuted Christians with Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, spoke with Coptic Pope, Tawadros II, and visited the site of a church bombing in Cairo which left 29 dead in December.
Prior to Pope Francis' visit, weary Copts urged the Catholic patriarch to challenge al-Sisi over attacks against the church and chronic discrimination.
A Vatican diplomatic source, however, warned: "He should be careful not to overly criticise the government for Christian persecution, a trap that (his predecessor) Benedict XVI fell into. 'The attacks are very difficult to control. [...] How are you going to prevent them? It's very difficult. They have taken measures to increase power but that doesn't go down well with the Western world'."
Improving ties, highlighting radicalisation
Pope Francis' speech at the Peace Conference - hosted by the Grand Imam of Cairo's al-Azhar Mosque, Ahmed el-Tayeb - is the latest part of an effort to improve relations with al-Azhar, a learning institute comprising of a mosque and university.
In 2011, it broke off ties with the Vatican after Francis' predecessor, Benedict XVI, called for better protection for Copts following a bombing of a church in Alexandria in which 23 people were killed. To ease the tension in the relationship, the Grand Imam visited the Vatican in May 2016, after which it was the Pope's turn to accept an invitation to come and visit Cairo.
In his address, the Pope expressed what he considered to be some of the main drivers of radicalisation and violence: education, lack of opportunities leading to poverty, and the arms trade.
How do Egyptian Christians view the Pope's visit?
By meeting with political leaders, representatives of civil society and the Coptic Pope, Pope Francis' visit has divided opinion amongst the Egyptian Christians.
Church leader Stephanos Samy, from St George's church in Tanta, one of the churches attacked on Palm Sunday, compared Pope Francis and his visit to the Good Samaritan. His visit not only brought encouragement, but also communicated a clear message to the world 'that Egypt is the land of love and peace and that religious unity is not in doubt. Muslims and Copts are living here together, united, and they will not allow terrorists to bring division'.
Amir Fakhry, a Coptic activist in Minya Governorate, is of the view that 'the visit of Pope Francis was not a visit to the Coptic people, but to the Egyptian state and supporting it in the face of terrorism'. Amir lives and works in an area that has seen its fair share of religious motivated violence. He told World Watch Monitor that the visit 'will have a political and economic impact and will encourage tourists to come to Egypt, but it will not change the situation of the Copts. The international political message is that Egypt is safe, but our problems and suffering will continue and it will not change anything'.
Rev. Bassem Adly, Pastor in the Evangelical church in Assiut (Upper Egypt), said: "This visit changed the world's impression of Egypt as it showed that the country is capable and successful in establishing security, dialogue and organising itself." He stressed the need to establish and continue dialogue between al-Azhar, the Vatican and the churches as this would have a great impact in the fight against extremist ideology.
Persecution in Egypt
Egypt has been rocked by religious and political strife of late. After the twin attacks on churches on Palm Sunday, which left at least 49 people dead and more than 110 injured, the country has been in a state of emergency.
The Coptic Church and its believers (who make up the majority of Egypt's Christians - who total 10 per cent of Egypt's population) and have been particularly targeted by Islamist extremists. In the past four years, Egypt has risen from 25 to 21 in the Open Doors World Watch List - a ranking of the top 50 countries where Christians face most persecution.
Earlier this year, so-called Islamic State militants threatened to wipe out Egypt's Christians, resulting in a spate of murders against believers and the subsequent attacks on Palm Sunday.
Source: World Watch Monitor
- That Egypt's Christians would be encouraged by Pope Francis' visit and that their plight would continue to be internationally recognised
- That President al-Sisi would actively support and protect believers in Egypt in light of Pope Francis' visit
- For those vulnerable to Islamist radicalisation in Egypt, that they would instead be drawn towards the love and peace of God.
More News from Egypt:
- 'We are Christians' - How the tragic bus attack unfolded
- Over 20 Coptic Christians killed and 27 wounded
- Solemn Easter celebrations as mourning continues for bomb victims
- Two widowed by Palm Sunday attacks share memories of their husbands
- At least 49 killed in Palm Sunday church blasts
Find out more about persecution in Egypt.