OTTAWA (CCN) — Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt April 28 - 29 could be so good for the country that fanatics have tried to derail it, say the Canadian directors of two Catholic aid agencies.
On Palm Sunday two separate bombings at Coptic Orthodox churches in different cities killed 44 people and injured many more. Egypt has upped its security for the visit.
Marie-Claude Lalonde, executive director of Aid to the Church in Need Canada, said the attacks were designed to “instil, drop by drop, fear within the (Christian) community.”
The pope’s visit will include a meeting with the Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, the grand imam of the Mosque of Al-Azhar Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb, and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
“Another reason the attacks took place, the extremists don’t want the pope to meet with the highest Muslim authority of Egypt,” said CNEWA (Catholic Near East Welfare Association) Canada national director Carl Hétu. “For those people who want violence all over the Middle East, the pope meeting the grand imam of Egypt means we can talk, we can build peace and we can live in peace, Muslims and Christians together like we have for last 1,400 years with its ups and downs and complexities, but it is possible.”
“This meeting of the pope and the grand imam would set the road map towards peace not only in Egypt but all over the Middle East,” Hétu said. This is opposite what groups such as the Islamic State, al-Qaida and other Islamist groups trying to control the region want.
“(The pope’s visit) can only be good,” said Lalonde. “Good on different levels. One level is to show solidarity with Christians, to show them they are not forgotten. It’s very important. The pope is somehow looking after them.”
The other level is the pope’s visit with the Orthodox pope and the grand imam, she said. The imam is “the Muslim authority in the country and his speech is pretty much about dialogue.”
“If the pope and the grand imam of Al-Azhar can speak together, then everyone can do it,” Lalonde said. “It encourages dialogue on other levels. With the Orthodox, it’s the same.”
Lalonde pointed out the Palm Sunday attacks were not “something that just happened recently,” but that similar attacks have gone on in recent years, such as one in Cairo last December at a chapel connected to the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in which 30 were killed. Attacks have stepped up before the Arab Spring in 2011, such as one in January of that year in Alexandria that killed 21.
“You have incidents here and there, quite regularly, but overall the situation is not as bad as in Syria or Iraq,” she said.
Hétu, however, pointed out that before the 2003 war in Iraq and the 2011 war in Syria the level of discrimination faced by Christians in those two countries was “almost non-existent.”
They tended to be from the middle class, well-educated, had businesses and were doing relatively well, he said. “In Egypt the Christians are relatively poor compared to the other Christians of the Middle East. They live in rural areas, cannot have access to certain types of jobs that are restricted only to Muslims.”
“For many years churches could not be renovated or built without a presidential decree,” he said. Baptized Christian children who ended up in Egyptian orphanages “would become Muslim automatically.”
“In Egypt there is an institutionalized discrimination that did not exist in Iraq and Syria,” Hétu said. “The new government of General Sisi wants to change that, to make life easier, to allow full participation of Christians in society so Christians wouldn’t face institutionalized discrimination anymore.”
“He’s made that public,” Hétu said. “That’s part of the reason the Muslim fanatics in Egypt want to stop that.”
Both CNEWA and Aid to the Church in Need fund ongoing projects in Egypt, through the Catholic bishops in the country. Christians make up about 10 per cent of the Egyptian population; the vast majority of those Christians are Coptic Orthodox.