Pope Francis in Egypt: lights and shadows

Was Pope Francis’ recent visit to Egypt’s Al-Azhar University beset by contradictions?

Religious dialogue cannot be manipulated’, preached Pope Francis during his historical visit to the lands of the pyramids. Dialogue cannot be used for conversion or for imposing superiority over ‘the Other’, he implied. Also, he reiterated his conviction that there cannot be any religious obligation to commit acts of violence in the name of God. ‘The Lord hates him that loves violence’, he said, quoting one of the Psalms of Solomon.

Francis’ heartfelt message of peace was delivered at an international peace conference held at Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar Islamic University. A very topical event, given the recent spate of murders and suicide bombings unleashed by extremist fanatics against Egypt’s Christian Coptic minority. A minority of about 10 million, the Copts (a word meaning ‘Egyptians’) are peaceful, loyal citizens of their country. Their presence dates back to the days of the Pharaohs. The Coptic Patriarch, Pope Shenouda III, also met the Pope. ‘My people are bleeding’ he told Francis, with tears in his eyes.

Western Christians used to describe the Copts as ‘monophysites’, a term which they reject, considering it derogatory. It harks back to ancient controversies about the nature of Christ. ‘Monophysites’ designated those Eastern Christians who stressed the divine aspect in the incarnate Christ, far more than the human one. By contrast, the doctrinally orthodox position, defined at the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, states that Christ’s nature is both divine and human, perfectly united together. Hence, however abstruse to the uninstructed, calling the Copts ‘monophysites’ amounted to accusing them of heresy. However, theologians have agreed that the old conflict was largely over a matter of terminology and the controversy is now over.

Pope Francis also met Egypt’s President Sisi. Photographs show them smiling broadly at each other. Not all commentators were pleased. A critic pointed out that General Sisi is a dictator. He took power in 2013 not democratically but through a bloody military coup. The army massacred thousands of demonstrators. Hundreds of thousands are still in jail. The Copts, terrified of murderous extremism, have welcomed Sisi’s rule and protection. Inevitably, many Egyptians resent that. Of course, as a visiting head of the Vatican State, Pope Francis had no choice but to be friendly to the president of the host country. Still the spectacle of seeing the Pope, a man of peace, so chummy with Sisi has disturbed a few…

‘Those of a different religion should not be treated as enemies but as fellow travellers’, Francis urged. Presumably, he meant travellers towards the One True God, the Creator of all humanity. Given that Christian and Muslim nations in the past have fought each other in terrible wars, sincere believers will welcome his words. What he said about ‘the incivility of conflict’ hopefully will strike a chord with his audience. Besides, the Pope’s aim was to re-establish the previous relationship with Al-Azhar University. After Pope Benedict’s somewhat undiplomatic mention of a Byzantine Emperor’s opinion of the Prophet Muhammad at Regensburg University, Al-Azhar severed all connection with Rome. Francis was determined to heal the rift.

Jorge Maria Bergoglio is the first Jesuit Pope in history. Jesuits are a Catholic religious Order historically famous for its learning, as well as for its obedience. You cannot become a Jesuit unless you show academic ability. That is why I was a bit surprised to hear the Pope quoting the Ten Commandments – the Law God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. ‘You shall not kill’ says one of those commands and the Pope relied on that for his condemnation of violence. Great but…does Francis not know that that command was given to a people who were also at the same time ordered by God to fight wars and to execute criminals and sundry other wrongdoers? Only naive pacifists interpret ‘You shall not kill’ as ruling out any shedding of blood. (Actually, the correct translation is ‘Do no murder’.) Similarly, the wonderful Psalm invoked by Francis should be read alongside other bloodthirsty verses, which praise the extermination of Israel’s enemies. Alas, there is a problem with quoting the Scriptures selectively: Francis should not ignore that.

The international arms trade was also lambasted by the Pope during his address. Fair enough. You would expect him to say nothing less and Sheikh Ahmad Tayyib, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, readily agreed with him (slightly ironic perhaps, given the fact that Egypt is in the hands of a military ruler).  Moreover, Tayyib acknowledged Pope Francis’ initiatives to defend Islam from unjust accusations and to help refugees and other displaced people. He correctly observed that modern civilisation tends to neglect and marginalise the teachings of the divine religions and their God-based ethics.  However, the Sheikh declined to attribute the acts of violence on the Copts to any theological motivation, no matter how misguided or warped. Instead, he obscurely said that the crimes ‘lacked any logic’. Some would say that he ducked the real issue, that of certain religiously-driven ideologies.

In the days of the Patriarch Joseph – a figure revered in both Islam and Christianity – Egypt saved people from hunger, Francis noted. He then called on the nation to save the Middle East from the present famine of love and fraternity. Wonderful, inspiring words but…is General Sisi really the best man to perform that noble task?



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