In just one week’s time, Pope Francis takes off on a journey to the Egyptian capital Cairo, where he will visit the prestigious al-Azhar centre of Islamic studies. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the Orthodox world, is also expected to join the Holy Father there, alongside the Coptic Pope Tawadros II.
Both Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew have been invited by the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb to attend an international peace conference there.
During the brief April 28th to 29th visit, the Pope will meet with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as well as celebrating Mass for the local Catholic community.
His visit comes less than a month after two bomb attacks on Coptic churches in Egypt by so-called Islamic State militants left 45 people dead and dozens of others injured.
Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald is the former nuncio to Egypt and former head of the Vatican’s Council for Interreligious Dialogue. He talked to Philippa Hitchen about expectations ahead of this short but highly significant papal visit.
Archbishop Fitzgerald says it’s significant that the Pope is going to Egypt where there are so many difficulties and uncertainties, with “extremists who are against the institutions and against Christians in a particular way”. He notes it’s not the first papal visit, since Pope John Paul II travelled there in the year 2000 and was “received remarkably well”.
Friendship between two popes
He says the significance lies also in the relationship between Pope Francis and the head of the Coptic Church Pope Tawadros, whose first journey after being elected patriarch of Alexandria was to visit the Vatican. This trip, he says, “will be another moment consolidating this friendship between the two popes”.
Personal relations and theological dialogue
Archbishop Fitzgerald says the dialogue with the Oriental Churches about the role of the pope as bishop of Rome is ongoing and this theological dialogue is important, but it will be personal relationships, rather than theological discussions, that will be at the heart of the Cairo visit.
Reciprocal visit to Grand Imam
Regarding relations with the Muslim world, the archbishop says that one of the main motives for the visit is also to consolidate progress in the relationship between the Vatican and al-Azhar. He recalls that the Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb came to see the pope in Rome and this reciprocal visit will be “highly appreciated”.
Meeting of leaders “a sacrament”
Archbishop Fitzgerald says that while Pope Francis is known as a man of surprises, it’s unrealistic to expect any big changes as a result of this trip. But in itself the meeting between the two leaders is important: he says “let’s call it a sacrament”, because “it’s not just a symbol” but rather it’s “producing something which goes beyond their own persons”.
Muslims and Christians combating extremism
Commenting on the most recent round of talks between the Vatican and al Azhar, Archbishop Fitzgerald notes that “extremism has been condemned by the majority of Muslim leaders around the world”. He stresses the importance of monitoring social media since so many young people are radicalized through the internet. He notes that al-Azhar is also working with the Dominicans in Cairo, forming a group to study extremism together.
Finally Archbishop Fitzgerald recalls that, just as not all Christians see Pope Francis as a figure of authority, in the same way al-Azhar has “a prestigious role within the Islamic world, but it is not followed by all Muslims around the world. So while “we pray for miracles”, he concludes, “we don’t always expect them”.