Francis tells Egyptian Catholics to reject fanaticism and respect other faiths

The crowd reacts as Pope Francis arrives to celebrate Mass at the Air Defense Stadium in Cairo April 29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
This article appears in the Francis in Egypt feature series. View the full series.

Cairo — Pope Francis told the small minority Catholic population in Muslim-majority Egypt on Saturday to treat those of different faiths not as enemies but brothers and sisters, saying "true faith ... moves our hearts to love everyone."

In a homily during an outdoor Mass marked by enthusiastic participation and the backdrop of the Pyramids, the pontiff also told the Catholics they must reject any sort of extremism or intolerance towards other religions.

"True faith is one that makes us more charitable, more merciful, more honest and more humane," said the pope, speaking to several thousand Egyptians of seven different Catholic rites. "It makes us see the other not as an enemy to be overcome, but a brother or sister to be loved, served and helped."

"True faith leads us to protect the rights of others with the same zeal and enthusiasm with which we defend our own," he continued. "Indeed, the more we grow in faith and knowledge, the more we grow in humility and in the awareness of our littleness."

"The only fanaticism believers can have is that of charity!" Francis exhorted. "Any other fanaticism does not come from God and is not pleasing to him!"

Francis' homily Saturday came on the second and last day of his visit to Egypt, where 90 percent of the population of about 92 million identifies as Muslim. The biggest part of the Christian minority is Eastern or Oriental Orthodox. According to Vatican figures, Catholics number only about 272,000, including 494 priests.

The Mass was arranged to highlight the diversity of the Catholic community, with prayers in Arabic, Latin, Spanish, English, French and Italian.

Francis rode around the stadium before the Mass in a specially outfitted golf cart. As the pope moved, people waved Egyptian flags and white and yellow balloons. Devotional images of Mary were also let fly in the air, lifted up by balloons as they floated in front of the Pyramids.

People in the crowd wore white hats printed with the logo for Francis' visit: "Pope of peace in Egypt of peace."

The pope's message Saturday echoed his earlier speeches in Egypt. At a peace conference hosted at the world's oldest center of Muslim learning Friday, the pontiff called on global religious leaders to condemn violent extremism and "unmask violence that masquerades as purported sanctity."

Security has been extraordinarily tight in Cairo for Francis' visit. Two Coptic Orthodox churches here were bombed just three weeks ago, killing 45 people preparing for Palm Sunday celebrations April 9.

The Mass was held at a soccer stadium controlled by the Egyptian military. Security officials lined the route the pope's entourage took to the stadium, with armored vehicles and small tanks at periodic intervals.

Francis reflected in his homily on Luke's telling of the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Three days after Jesus' death, two of the disciples were walking when Jesus joined and conversed with them. The disciples did not recognize Jesus until they ate with him, breaking bread together. At the moment of their recognition, Jesus vanished.

"The risen Lord vanished from the sight of the disciples in order to teach us that we cannot hold on to Jesus as he appeared in history," the pontiff told the crowds at the Mass.

"The Church needs to know and believe that Jesus lives within her and gives her life in the Eucharist, the scriptures and the sacraments," said the pope. "The disciples on the way to Emmaus realized this, and returned to Jerusalem in order to share their experience with the others."

The pope said the disciples' experience that "it is of no use to fill our places of worship if our hearts are empty of the fear of God and of his presence."

"It is of no use to pray if our prayer to God does not turn into love for our brothers and sisters," said Francis. "All our religiosity means nothing unless it is inspired by deep faith and charity."

"It is of no use to be concerned about our image, since God looks at the soul and the heart and he detests hypocrisy," the pontiff continued. "For God, it is better not to believe than to be a false believer, a hypocrite!"

Francis concelebrated Saturday's Mass with Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak of Alexandria and leaders of the other Catholic rites.

The stadium where they celebrated the Mass, which has a capacity of 30,000, was built to commemorate the role of the Egyptian Air Force in the country's 1967-70 war with Israel. The site was also the location of a violent 2015 clash between police officers and football fans that killed 22 people.

Following Saturday's Mass, Francis is to have lunch with the Egyptian bishops. He then heads to a Coptic Catholic seminary to meet and speak with seminarians, priests, and religious.

The pope is due to leave Cairo Saturday afternoon, arriving in Rome in the evening.

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

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