What the Pope Should Know Before He Visits Egypt This Week

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Egyptian President Abdelfattah el-Sisi shakes hands with Pope Francis during a meeting between the two at the Vatican in 2014. (Photo: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis is heading to Cairo this week for a conference addressing religious extremism and misinterpretations of religious texts.

Al Azhar, the most prestigious Islamic university in the Sunni Muslim world, is hosting the two-day International Peace Conference, in conjunction with the UAE-based Muslim Council of Elders. More than 300 Muslim and Christian scholars, leaders and politicians are expected to attend the event, convened by Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyib.

“This conference will send a message to the whole world that all religious figures and representatives of religions gathered in Al Azhar are on common terms with regard to the call for global peace among religious leaders and the whole human community,” the Muslim Council of Elders said in a statement.

The Vatican’s head of security has already arrived in Cairo, along with a delegation from the Vatican, to coordinate security arrangements.

The Pope is scheduled to give a speech alongside al-Tayyib at the conference. He will meet with Egyptian President Abdelfattah el-Sisi and Coptic Pope Tawadros II, and lead mass for Egyptian Catholics.

The Pope intends to eschew the bullet-proof car traditionally taken by pontiffs when travelling, on the grounds it prevents him from engaging with ordinary people.

He needs to be aware, however, that Egypt is not currently a safe place for Christians. On Palm Sunday at least 44 people were killed in two separate terrorist bombings that hit St. George’s Coptic Church in Tanta, northern Egypt, and then Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria a few hours later.

In February, Coptic Christians fled the Sinai peninsula after Islamists killed at least seven Christians in the city of El-Arish. The Islamic State terrorist group followed up the killings with a video threatening the Egyptian Christian community.

Copts are thought to make up around 10 percent of the country’s population but that number is dropping as Christians seek refuge from persecution.

Pope Francis should use the opportunity of his trip to Egypt to promote the rights of Christians in Egypt and work to ensure the Egyptian state does more to protect them.

Clarion Project’s latest film, Faithkeepers, tackles the violent persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. The film features exclusive footage and testimonials of Christians, Baha’i, Yazidis, Jews, and other minority refugees, and a historical context of the persecution in the region.

It premiers on May 23.


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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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