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Pope leaves Egypt with a strong 'No' to violence Open in fullscreen

Jo Schietti

Pope leaves Egypt with a strong 'No' to violence

Pope Francis (L) visits the Coptic Catholic College, Egypt [credit: Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria]

Date of publication: 2 May, 2017

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Analysis: During his visit, the Pope spoke passionately about the need for practicing justice, writes Jo Schietti.

Pope Francis closed his historic visit to Egypt with a powerful message of peace, urging Muslim leaders to unite against violence and religious extremism.

Thousands of Egyptian Catholics attended the open-air mass, that Pope Francis celebrated at Cairo's Air Defense Stadium last Saturday.

The papal visit came just three weeks after the Palm Sunday blasts on two Egyptian churches, for which IS claimed responsibility, that left 47 killed and more than 100 injured.

Prayers were held under heavy security with worshippers arriving from early morning - some waving the Egyptian and the Vatican's flags - accompanied by hymns performed by various choirs.

In what was expected to be a delicate trip, Pope Francis did raise the issue of human rights in his talks with Sisi, seeking to encourage the government's progress in protecting Egypt's religious minorities, while making diplomatic yet clear allusions to the crackdown on human rights under the current regime.

He also called for the "unconditional respect for inalienable human rights such as equality among all citizens, religious freedom and freedom of expression, without any distinction."

While in the past Sisi has been considered by some as critical to the protection of Christian minorities in Egypt, the Pope appeared to put some distance between himself and the president, likely because of his human rights record. If some in the Vatican have welcomed the efforts made by the former general to better protect the rights of the Christian minority, many remain troubled by the crackdown on the Brotherhood and the political opposition.

Indeed, Sisi has faced heavy criticism from rights groups for abuses since his military takeover that ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

Many remain troubled by the crackdown on the Brotherhood and the political opposition

The first visit of the head of the Vatican to Cairo since 2000, Pope Francis' trip to Egypt was much awaited by both Christians and Muslims as a crucial opportunity to provide support to the Christian community, as well as to mend ties with Islam.

After paying a short visit to Sisi and Al-Azhar's Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Pope participated in the International Peace Conference organized by Al-Azhar mosque and university, and made statements calling for tolerance, peace and an end to violence.

Among the participants were religious leaders of various denominations and Muslim representatives, along with students and scholars at Al-Azhar, the world's most prestigious centre of learning in Sunni Islam. 

"We all took part in this conference for the same purpose: To say that religion is not the source of violence but the solution, and to call for peace", noted Ahmad Ramadan, a young follower at Al-Azhar who also emphasised the importance of the timing of the visit in the aftermath of the recent attacks.

In an effort to fight extremism, the centre recently launched the Al-Azhar Observer For Combating Terrorism, an online publication monitoring the discourse around Islam in print and online publications in several languages.

In his speech, the Pope flatly denounced the instrumentalisation of religions, calling on Muslim leaders to stand against those who commit violence in the name of God

"The Observer is intended to correct misconceptions about Islam, and develop a counter-narrative versus the fanatic discourse held by terrorist groups", explained Dr Kamal Boraiq'a Abdelsalam Hassan, a member of Al-Azhar Center for Dialogue.

In his speech, the Pope flatly denounced the instrumentalisation of religions, calling on Muslim leaders to stand against those who commit violence in the name of God, and to dismantle extremist ideologies.

"As religious leaders, we are called, therefore, to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity," he said.

"Let us say once more a firm and clear 'No!' to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God", was Francis' powerful appeal.

  Read more: Are Copts at risk because of their Sisi support?

In a separate address, the head of the Vatican gently communicated his message that Sisi has spoken "often" and "with clarity" against a religious extremism that quashes diversity, but at the same time arguing that "history does not forgive those who preach justice, but then practice injustice; history does not forgive those who talk about equality, but then discard those who are different."  

"We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God.", the pontiff asserted.

The Pope also said that peace could only be achieved when the role of religions is acknowledged, and people start to differentiate between religion and politics.

Bearing a strong message of peace and tolerance, before the closing session of the conference Francis stressed the need to respect dignity and the religious rights and freedoms of the other.

'History does not forgive those who preach justice, but then practice injustice' - Pope Francis

"The antidote to misunderstanding is the physical encounter of the other", stated French Catholic priest Henry Fotrat, "Francis came to a Muslim-majority country to say that Islamic tradition does not carry violence".

"The Pope's visit is a sign of peace for all of us, an encouragement, we will continue to work for peace after his departure from Egypt", commented Father Boutros Daniel, Director of the Catholic Centre for Egyptian Cinema and member of the commission organising liturgy for the papal visit.

The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayeb also delivered a speech explainimg that Islam is not a "religion of terrorism", and thanked Christian communities for supporting them against those who accuse Muslims of being terrorists. 

Tayeb went on to say that Islam cannot be judged because a small group of individuals who claim to be believers are committing violent actions.

Al-Azhar, however, has been strongly criticised for being unable to reform the religious discourse. In response, a committee was formed to renew its curricula. Several training courses have also been organised for imams to modify their religious speech.

Following the peace conference, Pope Francis together with Orthodox leaders led ecumenical prayers at the church hit by a bomb by an IS-affiliated group last December, that killed more than 25 people. He also paid tribute to the victims who died in the attacks against the two Coptic churches in Tanta and Alexandria on Palm Sunday.

Human rights activists were concerned about whether the Pope's meeting with Sisi would involve any mention of the internal human rights situation, such as the case of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni who was found murdered in Cairo last year.

During his in-flight presser on the way back from Egypt, the Pope was asked about it.

"I had four private dialogues here with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, with Sisi, with Pope Tawadros and with Patriarch Ibrahim and I believe that out of respect, one must maintain privacy... I am concerned, from the Holy See I have moved on that topic because the parents also asked me to. The Holy See has moved. I will not say how or where, but we have moved", was his response.

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