Why is Pope Francis visiting Egypt?

Francesca Astorri

Published: Updated:

It has been almost two decades since a Roman Catholic Pope has been on an official visit to Egypt. It was the year 2000 when Pope John Paul II said in Arabic “Peace be upon you”, making history as the first Pope to visit Egypt. The Catholic Pope has not visited since, until now. On April 28, Pope Francis will land in Cairo in a visit that has been billed as a historic moment.

“Pope of peace in Egypt of peace” is the slogan being used on the Holy See website to brand Pope Francis’ trip to Egypt. It sounds tragically far from reality, just days after two bomb blasts hit Coptic Christian churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday - one of the holiest days for the Coptic community.

“Christians and Muslims have been living in relative harmony for ages, but now there are forces that are hard to control” Jean-Louis Pierre Tauran, Cardinal of the Catholic Church and President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue in the Roman Curia told Al Arabiya English.

“Security is the main concern related to the Pope’s visit, but responsibilities depend on the Egyptian authorities. As regard the Pope is serene,” Cardinal Tauran added.

On his visit to Cairo Pope Francis will meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Grand imam of Al-Azhar mosque, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayyib, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Pope Tawadros II and with the Catholic community.

This visit aims to cement the spirit of mutual respect and dialogue among followers of different religions and further isolate extremism and violence, as main obstacles come from ignorance and radicalism, Cardinal Tauran explained.

Now, more than before, the Vatican is paying attention to these subjects, as threats of terrorism have reached the doors of St. Peter’s Basilica.

For the first time this year the Vatican was included in 2017 Risk Map presented by risk management multinational Aon, in collaboration with Roubini Global Economics and The Risk Advisory Group. The Vatican is between the countries that registered a score deterioration regarding terrorism and political violence. “The risk level for the Vatican increased due to repeated Islamic State threats” the report explains.

These threats were symbolized by the image of ISIS black flag superimposed on the obelisk in St Peter’s square published in a 2014 edition of ISIS online propaganda magazine Dabiq.

Christians in the Middle East have been living under ISIS threat for years now. According to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), they are facing a true genocide threat that has prompted a massive exodus. This is leading to fear that Christianity is on course to disappear.

Christians are in fact fast disappearing from entire regions, most notably from the Middle East, but also whole dioceses in Africa, according to the ACN report.

Beside ISIS persecutions in the MENA region, Christianity is also losing followers and strength in other parts of the world.

The number of Christians in what many consider the religion’s heartland, Europe, is in decline. This is what was reported by 2017 Pew Research Center demographic analysis. Apparently Christians in Europe are dying faster than they are being born, as deaths outnumbered births by nearly 6 million between 2010 and 2015.

This is a trend that hasn’t been shared by Muslims that are considered the fastest growing major religious group, which has been estimated to likely increase in number by 70 percent between 2015 and 2060. According to Pew Research Center’s report, the number of Muslims is expected to exceed the number of Christians by the end of this century.

Despite the decline in numbers, Christians remained the largest religious group in the world in 2015, making up nearly a third (31 percent) of Earth’s 7.3 billion people. As the community remains significant in magnitude, it is now more fragmented.

The fragmentation of the Christian community is most evident in the Middle East, where we find a number of different denominations from the one of the Catholic Church. There are the Copts, the Maronite Christians, the Christians of the Orthodox Church, the Melkite Christians, the Chaldeans, just name just a few.

These divisions explain the need for the Catholic Church to show its presence in the Middle East, in order to coagulate the community and implement its evangelical mission.

“The Catholic church is looking for a way to lead Christianity towards a new form of unity, at the same time trying to keep its primacy. But I believe we are still far from establishing a universal Church with a sort of federal structure,” Italian historian Franco Cardini, Fellow at Harvard University, Boston and Director of the Ecole d’Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris, told Al Arabiya.

The tentative to conform and level Christian beliefs is not new, as it started with Roman Emperor Theodosius I in the IV century AD, according to Cardini, who is also Professor of Medieval history at the University of Florence, Italy.

Relations between the Muslim world and the Catholic Church are crucial to the international peace, as both religious groups combined bring together around 4 billion people.

Foreign policy has been key in Pope Francis’s four-year-old papacy, as he has been working for reconciliation and overcoming divisions among all peoples.

Speaking in a nationally televised address in 2014, US President Barack Obama thanked Pope Francis for the help the Pope had given in facilitating the beginning of normalization in relations between the United States and Cuba.

“In particular,” Obama said, “I want to thank His Holiness Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is."

These words are more relevant now, given the need for a mediator on a number of issues in a number of parts of the Middle East, from Syria to Palestine.

“The Vatican can play an important role as a mediator between the Western world and the Middle East. But beyond that, the power of the pope in the Middle East is quite limited to soft power,” Pejman Abdolmohammadi, Research Fellow at the Middle East Center of the London School of Economics (LSE), said, adding that expectations around Pope Francis are overestimated.

“If and when the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis will be seriously reopened, then the Pope has a potentiality there and he could decide to play a crucial role in that scenario,” said Abdolmohammadi, who is also Professor of Middle East Studies at University of Genoa, Italy.

The peace process between Palestinians and Israelis seem to be stuck with no identified facilitators and new obstacles. That’s the mediation that the world would perceive as a real effort by the Catholic Church to bring international peace for the benefit of all, beyond religious differences.

The opening of the first Palestinian embassy to the Holy See earlier this year, was widely considered as a step towards facilitating a peace process based on the two-State solution. Now the Pope’s visit to Egypt after more than a decade of absence looks like a way to reconcile with the Middle East and build new bridges.

If the Catholic Church wants to play a significant role in the region, the pope should consider going beyond symbolic acts and start facilitating where mediation is needed.

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