Francis faces political, religious land mines on Egypt trip

Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo: Pope Francis is to speak at a peace conference at the mosque on April 28. (Wikimedia Commons/Sailko)
This article appears in the Francis in Egypt feature series. View the full series.

Vatican City — As Pope Francis prepares for a two-day visit to Egypt at the end of this week, experts on the country say he will face a series of difficult choices while he's there. The trip could be one of the most delicate yet of his four-year papacy.

In one realm, Francis is expected to express solidarity with the country's minority Coptic Christian community following suicide bombings April 9 that killed 45 people at two churches. But there is a fear that if the pope speaks too strongly, it could spark more attacks by Muslim extremists.

In another realm, some hope Francis will speak out against the silencing of political opposition under Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who took power after a 2013 coup that deposed elected leader Mohamed Morsi. But should Francis say too much, he could upset his host and endanger efforts Sisi is taking to protect Christians.

"There's a lot of land mines," said Dwight Bashir, an expert on the region who has studied and traveled in Egypt for decades.

"How do you navigate?" asked Bashir, director of research and policy for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. "There's a lot of anticipation [about the visit] because it's not clear how [it's] going to go."

Francis will speak with Sisi privately upon landing in Cairo April 28. The two will meet at the presidential palace in the city's northeast quarter before the pope heads to the al-Azhar Mosque, where he will be speaking at a peace conference hosted by Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb.

Augustus Richard Norton, who has written several books on political reform in the Middle East and has taught as a visiting scholar at Cairo's al-Ahram Center, said he thought the land mines for the pope regarding the political opposition in Egypt are "worth navigating."

Norton said that since the 2013 coup, thousands of Egyptians have been thrown in jail with little regard for due process, simply on suspicion of opposing Sisi. Some in jail are the leaders of the 2011 revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country since 1981.

"That seems to me to be horrendous," said Norton, a professor of anthropology and international relations at Boston University. "That's the kind of thing I would hope, land mine or not, the pope would address because these are quite literally prisoners of conscience."

If Francis addressed it, Norton said, "it would not make Sisi happy, but I think it would be very appropriate."

At a press conference April 24 in advance of the papal trip, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke was asked whether Francis' trip to Egypt inappropriately legitimizes Sisi's presidency and his moves against political opponents.

"We're not going to make everyone happy ever," Burke responded. "Let's hear what the pope has to say."

The spokesman was also asked about concerns for the pope's safety on the visit. Burke said the Vatican is taking the same measures to protect Francis as it does for every visit abroad.

Some Italian-language reports have indicated Francis would use a bulletproof car in Egypt for the first time in his papacy, but Burke said those reports are inaccurate, adding: "He'll use a normal car."

Bashir said Francis' invitation to speak at the peace conference reflects a "new opening" for formal dialogue between the Catholic Church and al-Azhar, the oldest Islamic seat of learning and Sunni Muslim authority.

Such dialogue had been interrupted in 2011 after Pope Benedict XVI called on international leaders to take measures to defend the Coptic community following earlier attacks on their churches, which el-Tayeb called interference in his country's affairs.

In another sign of a new possibility for such Christian-Muslim dialogue, Francis will be speaking at the peace conference alongside Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

The pope and patriarch last traveled together in April 2016, when they made a joint visit to meet refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Francis will visit the Coptic community following his participation in the peace conference April 28. He will meet with its leader, Pope Tawadros II, and the two are expected to both give public remarks.

Related: Pope to visit pope in Egypt (April 13, 2017)

The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is a small minority in Egypt, where about 90 percent of the country's population of more than 92 million identifies as Muslim.

Bashir said that part of the dynamic Francis will face in meeting the Copts and expressing solidarity after the April 9 bombings is the fact that Sisi's moves to defend Christians have angered some relatively small extremist Muslim sects.

"This has ... started this process of a backlash against Christians," said Bashir. "The anger is even greater with some of these extremist elements, saying, 'If he's doing all this for Christians, we've got to go after the Christians.' "

Norton said the recent attacks have undermined Sisi's authority.

"Sisi has had firm and enthusiastic support from the Coptic community," he said. "And his consistent position has been to stand with the Copts and to pledge security. What the bombings did is basically make him look like he wasn't effective."

The Coptic Orthodox Church traces its founding to the apostle Mark and is one of six churches that form Oriental Orthodoxy. Those churches, which have about 84 million members together, recognize only the first three ecumenical councils, having broken off from the other Christian churches in the fifth century.

Paulist Fr. Ronald Roberson, associate director of the U.S. bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said the Catholic and Coptic Churches in general have a "very positive" relationship.

Roberson said he thought Francis' visit, coming after the bombings, is "a clear indication of support for the Coptic Orthodox Church as it goes through another difficult time."

Anthony Cirelli, the committee's other associate director, said that something not often reported in the press are stories of Muslims in Egypt who come to the support of the Orthodox when their churches are under attack.

Cirelli said he thought Francis' speech at the al-Azhar peace conference might be an opportunity to lift up examples of such cooperation.

Norton said he hoped the pope might use his speeches in Egypt to distinguish between different Muslim views.

"Given the pope's stature and position, the major contribution he might make is distinguishing the violent terrorism of groups like the Islamic State from mainstream Islam," he said.

"That's a very important message at a time when some governments, notably our present U.S. government, don't seem to mind blurring the lines between the extremists and the mainstream," said Norton.

Francis is scheduled to conclude his visit April 29 with the celebration of a Mass and a meeting with the clergy of Egypt's small Catholic population. According to 2015 figures from the Vatican, the latest available, there are some 272,000 Catholics in the country, who are ministered to by 494 priests.

The Egypt trip will be the pope's 18th outside Italy since his election in March 2013.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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