On Palm Sunday, two separate bombings at Coptic Orthodox churches in different cities killed 45 people and injured many more. Egypt has increased its security for the April 28-29 visit.
Marie-Claude Lalonde, executive director of Aid to the Church in Need Canada, said the attacks were designed to “instill, drop by drop, fear within the (Christian) community.”
ISIS has claimed responsibility for both attacks.
The Pope’s visit will include meetings with the Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, the Grand Imam of the Mosque of Al Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayyib and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
“Another reason the attacks took place, the extremists don’t want the Pope to meet with the highest Muslim authority of Egypt,” said CNEWA (Catholic Near East Welfare Association) Canada national director Carl Hétu. “For those people who want violence all over the Middle East, the Pope meeting the Grand Imam of Egypt means we can talk, we can build peace and we can live in peace, Muslims and Christians together like we have for last 1,400 years with its ups and downs and complexities, but it is possible.
“This meeting of the Pope and the Grand Imam would set the road map towards peace not only in Egypt but all over the Middle East,” Hétu said.
Egypt’s Christians make up only about 10 per cent of the population, but have been targeted in recent violent attacks by Islamic extremists.
“(The Pope’s visit) can only be good,” said Lalonde. “Good on different levels. One level is to show solidarity with Christians, to show them they are not forgotten. It’s very important. The Pope is somehow looking after them.”
The other level is the Pope’s visit with the Orthodox Pope and the Grand Imam, she said. The Imam is “the Muslim authority in the country and his speech is pretty much about dialogue.”
“If the Pope and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar can speak together then everyone can do it,” Lalonde said. “It encourages dialogue on other levels. With the Orthodox, it’s the same.
“We will help 3,000 young Egyptians to participate in the events with the Pope,” Lalonde said. “The visit is a great source of hope for the youth over there so we will help some participate.”
Lalonde pointed out the Palm Sunday attacks were not “something that just happened recently” and have stepped up in the six years since the Arab Spring. In December, an attack at a chapel connected to the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo killed 30.
“You have incidents here and there, quite regularly, but overall the situation is not as bad as in Syria or Iraq,” she said.
Hétu, however, pointed out before the 2003 war in Iraq and the 2011 war in Syria, the level of discrimination faced by Christians in those two countries was “almost non-existent.” They tended to be from the middle class, well-educated, had businesses and were doing relatively well, he said.
“In Egypt, the Christians are relatively poor, compared to the other Christians of the Middle East. They live in rural areas; cannot have access to certain types of jobs that are restricted only to Muslims.
“For many years churches could not be renovated or built without a presidential decree,” he said. Baptized Christian children who ended up in Egyptian orphanages “would become Muslim automatically.”
Hétu said there is “institutionalized discrimination” in Egypt that did not exist in Iraq and Syria.
“The new government of General Sisi wants to change that, to make life easier, to allow full participation of Christians in society,” he said, which is meeting violent opposition from Muslim fanatics.
Both CNEWA and Aid to the Church in Need fund ongoing projects in Egypt through the Catholic bishops in the country.
Aid to the Church in Need funds faith formation and projects to benefit the churches.