Pope Francis greets children dressed as pharaohs and in traditional dress as he arrives to celebrate Mass at the Air Defense Stadium in Cairo April 29. CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano

Pope makes a push for solutions to global issues in Egyptian visit

  • May 3, 2017

Pope Francis visited Egypt for two days and for two days he made Egypt his platform.

Religious violence, Middle East politics and wars in general, refugee rights globally and the threat of nuclear calamity on the Korean peninsula were all on his mind during his April 28-29 visit.

On his flight home, Pope Francis told reporters there’s only one logical way of dealing with North Korea.

“The path is the path of negotiation, the path of a diplomatic solution,” he said, passing up an invitation to comment directly on U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to send warships into the region.

“I always call (for) resolving problems through the diplomatic path, negotiations” because the future of humanity depends on it, he said.

The Pope’s global vision doesn’t overlook local issues. A less defensive and less suspicious relationship between Catholic Copts and Orthodox Copts is essential for Egypt’s tiny Catholic minority. In a country where Catholics of various rites — Coptic, Roman, Melkite, Syriac, Armenian and Chaldean — together amount to just 250,000 Christians compared to 9.2 million Orthodox Copts, signs of mutual respect and understanding between the Pope of Alexandria and the Pope of Rome are more than a good photo-op.

“Whether it’s in Ethiopia or in a country like Egypt and in so many other parts (of the Middle East), the Orthodox are the majority,” said Catholic Near East Welfare Association Canada executive director Carl Hétu. “If the Orthodox fall then the Catholics will. When you have nine million Orthodox, the health of the Orthodox is very important for the health of the Catholics. Ecumenism is important.”

A substantial landmark in Catholic-Coptic ecumenical relations was reached when the Pope and Pope Tawardros II signed a common declaration to mutually recognize the validity of baptisms in both churches. Catholics have long recognized Coptic Orthodox baptisms, but until now most Coptic priests and bishops have insisted on re-baptizing any Catholic who wishes to join the Coptic Church.

The statement signed by Tawardros II and Francis declares the two popes “with one mind and heart, will seek sincerely not to repeat the baptism that has been administered in either of our Churches for any person who wishes to join the other.” This builds on a gradual shift to openness in the Orthodox Coptic Church that has taken place since the 2012 election of Tawardros II, especially compared to his predecessor Pope Shenouda III, Hétu said.

At the signing ceremony Pope Francis urged Catholics and Orthodox Copts together to “oppose violence by preaching and sowing goodness, fostering concord and preserving unity, praying that all these sacrifices may open the way to a future of full communion between us and peace for all.”

That’s more than boilerplate ecumenism in a country that elected a Muslim Brotherhood government in 2012 and where imported Saudi preachers increasingly dominate the airwaves with a brand of Islam preaching contempt for non-Muslims. A warmer relationship of mutual trust and support between Egypt’s largest church and the world’s largest Church adds extra clout to Pope Francis’ remarks on fostering harmony at an Al Azhar University peace conference.

In the world’s most powerful and respected Sunni Muslim centre of learning, the Pope stood beside Egypt’s Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayeb and asked religious leaders to “unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity.”

“We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God,” he said.

Al-Tayeb condemned freelance preachers who “manipulate with Islamic texts and misinterpret them ignorantly.”

“Then, they shed blood, kill people and spread destruction. Unfortunately, they find available sources of finance, weapons and training,” he said.

Pope Francis’ condemnation of religious violence and the politicized religious rhetoric behind it may seem to Western ears to be predictable and run-of-the-mill for this Pope. But they mark a turning point, said Hétu.

In 2006 Pope Benedict XVI’s infamous Regensburg address poisoned the well of Muslim-Catholic relations by quoting 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos. The quote, taken out of context, caused an uproar throughout the Muslim world — including church burnings with several fatalities in Egypt.

“In only a few years, things can change very quickly,” pointed out Hétu.

If the Pope’s visit was a chance for Egyptians to hear credible voices speaking out against violence, it was also an opportunity to cut the legs out from under “a certain radicalism and fanaticism within Islam,” said Hétu.

“Many (Muslims in Egypt) would like this to stop, or at least be countered by what many would call the real Islam — the Islam of peace, the Islam that is tolerant, the Islam that collaborates,” Hétu said.

Francis chose the language of religious freedom and human rights to appeal to Muslims and Christians, politicians and voters.

“Recognizing rights and basic freedoms, particularly religious freedom, represents the best way to build the future together, to be builders of civility,” he said.

(With files from Catholic News Service.)

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