A cross above a church is seen alongside minarets of a mosque April 17 in Cairo ahead of Pope Francis' April 28-29 visit. CNS photo/Amr Abdallah Dalsh, Reuters

Editorial: Egypt trip strengthens Mideast Christians, religious tolerance

  • April 27, 2017

Just 19 days after two Palm Sunday terrorist bombings killed more than 45 Christian worshippers and injured a hundred more in Egypt, Pope Francis will personally take a message of peace and solidarity to that volatile nation.

 There are certainly safer spots in the world the Pope could visit, but perhaps few places where his calming presence is more needed.

He arrives on April 28 for a two-day stay in the wake of April 9 suicide attacks at Coptic churches in the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria. The Alexandria strike occurred just outside the Cathedral of St. Mark as Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, was leading the Palm Sunday service.

Surveillance footage showed the bomber attempting to enter the cathedral, probably to target Pope Tawadros. The terrorist group ISIS claimed responsibility. Yet, despite the risk, Pope Francis announced the next morning his trip to Egypt would proceed as planned so he could, as a spokesman for the Egyptian bishops put it, “be beside his brothers at this time of difficulty.”

Of course security will be tight, but that doesn’t make Egypt a safe destination. The Pope should be commended for keeping a commitment made months ago. He has spoken often about the need for the West to show solidarity with persecuted Christians of the Middle East.  His Egyptian trip can further that end in three ways.

First, his arrival can show Egypt’s Catholic minority and other Christians that they are not forgotten, they are not alone, and their struggle to maintain a faithful Christian presence amid a threat of martyrdom in often-hostile environments is courageous and respected.

Second, when Francis joins arms at a Cairo peace conference with Pope Tawadros and Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, considered “first among equals” by Eastern Orthodox leaders, the successors of the apostles Peter, Mark and Andrew will unite in a rare show of unity between the three churches. This is more than symbolic. It demonstrates the sincere desire of Francis to build a united front in support of all Christians in the Middle East.

Third, it will give Francis a platform to make a direct appeal at one of the intellectual centres of the Sunni Muslim world when the leaders meet with Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar University. It is one thing for Christian leaders to be united, but advancing religious tolerance in Egypt — and throughout the Middle East — requires support from moderate Muslims, particularly clerics. A key part of the Pope’s agenda is encouraging moderates to denounce terrorism and promote peaceful co-existence among followers of all religions.

That won’t happen from a single trip. But in the short-term Francis will let Christians in Egypt and the region beyond know that they are not alone.

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