Egypt welcomes Pope Francis
CAIRO // Pope Francis urged leaders of all faiths to unite in renouncing religious extremism and counter the “barbarity of those who foment hatred and violence.”
Addressing a peace conference at Al Azhar university in Cairo, he said, “Let us say once more a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God.”
The crowd responded with enthusiastic applause but the pope’s two-day visit to the most populous Arab nation began in more subdued fashion on Friday. The welcome at Cairo airport was muted, the police presence was heavy and memories of the deadly Palm Sunday attacks on two Christian churches still horribly fresh. But he brushed off security concerns by driving into town with his windows rolled down in a simple blue Fiat, and not the armoured “popemobiles” of his predecessors.
First on his itinerary - and the first every by any pope - was a landmark visit to Al Azhar university, the revered, 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Islam learning that trains clerics and scholars from around the world.
There, he warmly embraced Sheikh Ahmed El Tayeb, Al Azhar’s grand imam who hosted the pope and other senior Muslim and Christian leaders at the peace conference.
Speaking to the crowd, Francis recalled that Egypt’s ancient civilisations valued the quest for knowledge and open-minded education, and that a similar commitment is required today to combat the “barbarity” of religious extremism among the young.
While Al Azhar has strongly condemned Islamic fundamentalism, Egypt’s pro-government media has accused its leadership of failing to do enough to reform the religious discourse in Islam and purge canonical books of outdated teachings and hatred for non-Muslims.
“As religious leaders, we are called to unmask violence that masquerades as purported sanctity,” Francis said.
Sheikh Al Tayeb thanked Francis for what he called his “fair” comments against charges of terror and violence levelled against Muslims and Islam.
“We need to cleanse religions from wrong notions, false piety and fraudulent implementations which stoke conflicts and incite hatred and violence,” he said. “Islam is not a religion of terrorism because a minority from among its followers hijacked some of its texts” to shed blood and be provided by some with weapons and funds, he said to applause.
Francis also called for an end to the flow of weapons and money to militants, saying that “only by bringing into the light of day the murky maneuverings that feed the cancer of war can its real causes be prevented.”
He told a gathering of officials and diplomats that Egypt had a special role to play in forging regional peace and in “vanquishing all violence and terrorism, ” and praised president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi for repudiating religiously-inspired attacks while insisting on “unconditional respect for inalienable human rights.”
“Egypt, in the days of Joseph, saved other peoples from famine; today it is called to save this beloved region from a famine of love and fraternity, ”Francis said. “It is called to condemn and vanquish all violence and terrorism. ... Egypt, in building peace and at the same time combating terrorism, is called to give proof that religion belongs to God and the nation to all.”
Mr El Sissi said Islamic militants committing acts of terror in the name of religion could not claim to be Muslims.
Speaking beside the pontiff, the general-turned-president called for a comprehensive strategy to defeat terror and said Egyptians are made to pay an “exorbitant price” but were determined to defeat it.
Francis has said he wanted to bring a message of peace to a country that has for years endured an increasingly emboldened insurgency led by a local affiliate of ISIL. His 27-hour visit is also meant to lift the spirits of Egypt’s Christian community after three suicide bombings since December — including the twin Palm Sunday church attacks — killed at least 75 people. Egypt’s ISIL affiliate claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The visit to Al-Azhar marked a diplomatic breakthrough for the Vatican. Relations with Rome broke down in 2011, after Pope Benedict XVI demanded Egypt better protect its Christian minority following a New Year’s Eve church bombing that killed more than 20 people.
Later on Friday, the pope again pleaded for peace at St Mark’s church, the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church, where he met its spiritual leader - the “other” pope, Tawadros II, and they held a joint prayer service..
“Our church and nation has been through a painful experience in the past few months when the sinful hand of terrorism reached out to murder praying innocents,” Tawadros said in a speech at the meeting.
“Their innocent blood unites us,” Francis replied. The majority of Egypt’s estimated nine milion Christians are Coptic Orthodox and the two popes held a joint prayer service. They then walked in procession to the Saint Peter and Saint Paul church in Cairo where 30 people, were killed by a suicide bomber in December.
additional reporting by Associated Press and Agence France Presse
Updated: April 29, 2017 04:00 AM