Balancing act for pope in Egypt with Muslims and Christians

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Pope Francis departed from his prepared remarks at a special prayer service honoring Christian martyrs in Rome last weekend to tell the story of a Muslim man who watched Islamist terrorists cut the throat of his Christian wife because she refused to discard her Crucifix.

“He, Muslim, had this cross of pain that he bore without rancor,” the pope said, his voice filled with emotion. “He sought refuge in the love of his wife, graced by martyrdom.”

That anecdote — balancing the murder of a Christian by Islamist militants with a Muslim’s love for his wife — serves as a preview of the pope’s message when he visits Egypt on Friday.

Francis is expected to highlight the plight of Christians amid recent violence in Egypt, while continuing his mission to reach out to Muslims. Even for a politically savvy pope, that is a delicate balancing act, on top of obvious security concerns in a country recently attacked by the Islamic State group (ISIS).

Egypt is still recovering from coordinated Palm Sunday bombings of two Christian churches that killed more than 40 people, nearly killed the head of the Coptic Church and prompted President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to declare a three-month state of emergency.

Francis will lend his support to the roughly 250,000 Roman Catholics in Egypt and insist on the protection of minority rights, including those of its nearly 10 million Coptic Christians, in a meeting Friday with el-Sissi, according to Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian-born Jesuit priest who has seen the pope’s prepared remarks.

He will also meet with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar mosque — Sunni Islam’s most influential training center of imams — and speak at a peace conference organized by the mosque. The pope is scheduled to finish the day by meeting his Coptic Christian counterpart, Pope Tawadros II, who barely escaped the bombings on Palm Sunday.

 “It’s an encounter of consolation, promotion and communion with the small Catholic community,” said Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect for the Congregation for Eastern Churches, who is expected to join Francis on the trip. “But it’s of great importance from an ecumenical point of view. And, of course, it is very important for dialogue with Islam, for the meeting with the sheikh of Al-Ahzar.”

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