Pope Francis's visit to Egypt seen as a 'blessing'

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo


Egyptians walk past a billboard welcoming Pope Francis to Egypt a few hours before the start of his official visit on April 28th. [Thomas Coex/AFP]

Pope Francis arrived in Egypt on Friday (April 28th) for a two-day visit that is widely seen as a "blessing" from a man of peace and an opportunity to foster Muslim-Christian ties and dispel tension.

The Pope's visit -- his first to Egypt -- also sends a strong message of defiance in the face of terrorism in the light of the recent attacks on Coptic Christians.

On the first day of his visit, the head of the Roman Catholic Church was scheduled to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II.

He also was to attend a World Peace Conference organised by Al-Azhar.

On Saturday, the pontiff will preside over a celebratory mass to be attended by a large number of Egyptian Christian clerics and worshipers at the 30 June Stadium in Cairo, after which he will meet with church leaders.

Egyptians from all walks of life -- from the general public to political, religious and media figures -- expressed great satisfaction at the Pope's visit.

"The Pope’s visit during this difficult period in which Egypt is grappling with terrorism is of great importance," Al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies researcher Sami Gheit told Al-Mashareq.

The visit’s theme, 'The Pope of Peace in Egypt of Peace', has many religious, political and security connotations, "the most important of which is the Pope's affirmation that Egypt enjoys peace", he said.

It also demonstrates his determination to rally international support for Egypt in the wake of recent events, "personally taking the first step with his visit", he added.

The visit represents "the strongest message of defiance to terrorism that is hitting the region, especially after the bombings that struck [two] churches on Palm Sunday", Gheit said.

The visit will strengthen ties between the Vatican and Egypt, between Al-Azhar and the Vatican, "as well as the intra-Christian relationship between the global Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, he said.

This is significant to Christians in the East, he said, noting that Egypt has the region's largest Christian population, the majority of whom are Coptic Christians.

Dialogue and non-violence

The Pope’s visit is "the strongest proof of the serious interest of the world's religious leaders in dialogue and rejection of violence and extremism", said Rajeh Sabri of the Ministry of Awqaf's Directorate of Religious Guidance.

"The Vatican and Al-Azhar represent a large portion of the world's population, and the convergence between them is a message and a slap in the face directed at those who hold extremist ideas and accuse others of kufr (unbelieving) for no reason," he told Al-Mashareq.

"Both parties are earnest in their efforts to bring peace, and each views the other’s efforts as complementing its own," he added. "The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar visited the Vatican last year to open a new genuine page in this regard."

"Owing to the Pope’s huge popularity, the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment that arose following the spread of extremism in the name of Islam will gradually begin to recede," Sabri said.

The visit must be followed by others from joint Muslim-Christian delegations from Egypt, to affirm the unity of the Egyptian people and stress that Christians are an integral, primary and constituent part of its social fabric, he said.

'Hope and reassurance'

The Pope's visit is "a visit of blessing to Egypt and Egyptians and a major show of defiance to terrorism and terrorists", said the Rev. Ibrahim Faheem, of the Coptic Catholic Church of the Holy Family in Cairo.

"It is of great importance to Christians and a cause for hope and reassurance, not only to Egypt’s Christians, but Christians in the Orient in general, given the pressures they are subjected to," he told Al-Mashareq.

The strong welcome extended to the Pope by the Egyptian president and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar shows "Egypt's strong determination to continue the conduct of interfaith dialogue in order to establish peace around the world", he said.

Faheem expressed hope that the visit will give impetus to the work of the committees emanating from it, so they may arrive at common formulas for dialogue and disseminate them to both Muslim and Christian citizens.

"Fostering the spirit of peace must start in the street and with ordinary citizens," he said.

Tight security measures

Stringent security measures have been put in place for the Pope's visit, said Lt. Col. Amin al-Zaini, an Egyptian police official attached to Interpol.

"All the places he is visiting were secured by security special forces days in advance of the visit," he told Al-Mashareq.

Many were closed to the public to prevent any attempt at an attack, he added.

The biggest challenge has been the Pope's insistence on traveling without an armoured car, he noted.

A-Zaini said a Vatican security and protocol delegation arrived in Cairo two days before the visit and expressed their full and total approval of the measures taken by the Egyptian Ministry of Interior and all other security agencies.

An opportunity to revive tourism

The Pope's visit is "a golden opportunity to revive tourism in Egypt", said Mahmoud Shukri of the Ministry of Tourism's Chamber of Tourism Promotion.

The tourism sector has sustained a series of setbacks since a passenger airline crashed near the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Tourism leaders and the Egyptian business community expect "the event to attract millions of Christians from all over the world to visit and tour the religious sites in Egypt, which were specifically mentioned by the Pope in his message to the Egyptian people before embarking on his visit", Shukri said.

Christian sites and churches are scattered across various provinces, he said, and include Mount Sinai (Jabal Musa), St. Catherine's monastery in Sinai, the Mokattam area, Our Lady of Zeitoun Church in Cairo and St. Virgin Mary's Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo, also known as the Hanging Church.

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