Pope’s Egypt visit offers chance to improve Catholic-Muslim ties

Pope Francis and Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Pope Francis and Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi shake hands Nov. 24, 2014, during a private audience at the Vatican. Photo by Gabriel Bouys/Pool/File Photo/REUTERS

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) Pope Francis will make a trip to Egypt next month, giving the pontiff another opportunity to promote better relations between Catholics and Muslims.

Francis has accepted an invitation to Cairo on April 28-29 from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Catholic bishops, the pope of the Coptic church of Alexandria and the country’s highest Islamic authority, Al-Azhar, the Vatican said Saturday (March 18) in a statement.

Christians, mostly Orthodox Copts, account for about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, which is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. Sectarian violence sometimes erupts over disputes on issues related to church building, religious conversions and interfaith relationships.

Francis has put great emphasis on improving inter-faith relations since his election in 2013, and a year ago he met the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb in the Vatican.

That meeting unfroze relations after Al-Azhar, a 1,000-year-old mosque and university center, cut contacts with the Vatican in 2011 over what it said were repeated insults towards Islam from Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict.

Benedict had denounced what he called “a strategy of violence that has Christians as a target” following a bomb attack outside a church in the Egyptian city of Alexandria that killed 23 people.

A bombing at Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral killed at least 25 people and wounded 49 in December.

Pope Francis has urged an end to what he called a “genocide” against Christians in the Middle East, but he has also said it is wrong to equate Islam with violence.

Looking to set an example for Europe, he has taken in Muslim refugees fleeing the war in Syria.

In Cairo, Egyptian President Sisi issued a statement on the pope‘s forthcoming visit.

“Egypt welcomes Pope Francis and looks forward to this significant visit to strengthen peace, tolerance and inter-faith dialog as well as to reject the abhorrent acts of terrorism and extremism,” Sisi said.

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  • Imam Yahya Pallavicini, a well known international representative of moderate, traditional Islam: ““The international Islamic community is attentively following the developments in this process of rapprochement by Pope Francis with the Fraternity of St. Pius X towards reintegration in the Catholic Church. [T]he Fraternity of St. Pius X seem to be downsizing the importance of the fruits of the Council and ‘Nostra Aetate’ in order to preserve a traditionalist interpretation which in reality denies the spiritual opportunity for respect and brotherhood with believers of other faiths, in the One God …. This would be one further step towards denigrating and delegitimizing John XXIII’s ardent desire of an ‘aggiornamento’ of the Catholic Church, while resuscitating pseudo-religious anti-Semitic and other stereotypes that for too many hundreds of years caused immense suffering and ultimately the diabolic persecutions and genocides of the 20th century.”