Pope Francis listens as Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar University, speaks at a conference on international peace in Cairo April 28. The pope was making a two-day visit to Egypt. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
CAIRO (RNS) — Pope Francis has urged members of Egypt’s embattled Christian minority to show extremism only in forgiving those who wrong them and to avoid the temptation of acting like a “Pharaoh” by ignoring the needs of their neighbours.
On Saturday (April 29), the second and final day of his trip to Cairo — a brief but momentous visit taking place against the backdrop of Islamic radicalism — Francis focused his attention on the country’s tiny Catholic population, kicking off the day with a high-spirited mass celebrated in Latin and Arabic.
But even at this liturgy the spectre of brutal attacks against the Catholic and Coptic believers who total just 10 per cent of Egypt’s 92 million-strong population loomed as the pontiff reiterated the message that true religion has nothing to do with violence.
It was a message that he had also delivered in stark terms in a landmark address the day before to Islamic leaders at Cairo’s famed Al-Azhar Center.
“True faith is one that makes us more charitable, more merciful, more honest and more humane,” Francis told the 15,000-strong crowd during his homily at the Air Defense stadium. “It gives us the courage to forgive those who have wronged us, to extend a hand to the fallen, to clothe the naked, to feed the fallen.
“God is pleased only by a faith that is proclaimed by our lives, for the only fanaticism believers can have is that of charity,” he said. “Any other fanaticism does not come from God and is not pleasing to him.”
He added that Christians should be willing to “protect the rights of others” with the “same zeal with which we defend our own.”
The pope was greeted at the stadium with cheers and a flurry of balloons and he waved at the crowds from an open-top golf cart to the sound of Handel’s Hallelujah chorus and an Italian hymn, Laudato Si’.
That phrase is from a prayer by the pope’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, and it is also the title of the pope’s historic encyclical on climate change and the environment.
Francis of Assisi is something of a patron saint of the environment and he is known in Egypt for travelling to the country 800 years ago on a peace mission to meet with Islamic military leader Sultan al-Kamil during the Crusades.
At Saturday’s mass, a deacon sang the Gospel passage in Arabic in a chant that was both melodic and almost haunting. Helicopters flew overhead and those attending the mass had to pass through airport-style security to enter the stadium.
And in what was a first for a papal mass, a drone was spotted flying close to the altar, although it was not believed to be part of the security measures and raised no alarms.
Egypt’s Coptic Catholics number around 272,000, are made up of seven different branches and, as the pope explained, constitute a “small flock” in comparison to the 9 million-strong Christian population largely made up of Coptic Orthodox, a community that dates back to biblical times.
While technically equal under the country’s laws, Christians suffer from discrimination and are increasingly under persecution; 45 people were killed and scores injured when two Coptic Orthodox churches were attacked by Islamic extremists on Palm Sunday, just three weeks before the pope’s visit.
But rather than listening to the prophets of “destruction and condemnation,” the pope called on Egyptian Catholics to be a “sign of hope” in their homeland so, “like the engine of a train,” they can be a driving force as “builders of bridges and agents of dialogue.”
In a speech given later at the Coptic Catholic seminary — a formation centre for priests — the Argentine pontiff warned believers against falling into seven temptations, including gossiping, individualism, complaining and comparing themselves with others.
Another of the seven failings, he said, was to become like an ancient Egyptian emperor. Francis said that those who acted as though they were “Pharaoh” led them to ignoring their neighbours.
“Here the temptation is to think we are better than others, and to lord it over them out of pride; to presume to be served rather than to serve,” Francis explained.
Egypt’s Christians were largely supportive of the 2011 coup by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president.
Critics argue this has led to a rise in extremism, with terrorists of the Islamic State group, or ISIS, finding a fertile recruiting ground among disaffected brotherhood members.
After the Palm Sunday attacks, the president declared a state of emergency in the country and ensured heavy security was in place throughout the papal visit.
In Francis’ remarks at different venues on Friday, he not only called on Islamic leaders to join him in condemning violence carried out in God’s name but he also called for respect for religious liberty and human rights in a speech in front of el-Sissi.
“History does not forgive those who preach justice, but then practice injustice,” Francis said.
Rev. Oliver Borg Olivier, a Jesuit priest from Malta who has lived in Egypt for 22 years, said the country felt more secure after el-Sissi’s rise, and that was essential for tourism, a key industry. But he rejected the idea that Christians and Muslims were in conflict with each other.
“There is no divisions between Christians and Muslims in the places where we live,” Olivier explained before the mass started. “We lived in (apartments), a Christian community with Muslim neighbours, and we would invite each other to our feasts.”
After his afternoon meeting at the seminary, the 80-year-old pope was driven to Cairo International Airport to board the plane back to Rome, landing in the Eternal City on Saturday evening.
Christopher Lamb, Vatican correspondent for The Tablet of London, travelled with the pope to Egypt