CAIRO (RNS) Pope Francis used the political capital he has built up with the Islamic world to issue a powerful condemnation of religion-inspired violence, calling on Muslim leaders to unite against terrorist acts carried out in the name of God.
Francis made his remarks Friday (April 28) at an international peace conference held at Al-Azhar university, a major center of Sunni-Islamic learning with global influence and expertise in interpreting the Quran.
The pontiff’s speech opened a brief but momentous 27-hour trip to Cairo that comes less than three weeks after Palm Sunday attacks on two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt that left 45 dead and scores injured.
His visit, which is taking place under tight security, also comes against the backdrop of violence across the Middle East aimed at Christians and other religious minorities, as well as brutal battles among different Muslim communities.
“Let us say once more a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance, and hatred carried out in the name of God,” the pope said during his speech at the 10th century mosque and university conference center.
Religious leaders, Francis explained, had an “obligation” to condemn hatred “in the name of religion” adding that “no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God, for it would profane his name.”
In a long, and at times lyrical address, the 80-year-old pope condemned “demagogic forms of populism” and the arms trade for fueling terrorism and conflict while calling for education of young people to “turn the polluted air of hatred into the oxygen of fraternity.”
On his flight from Rome to Egypt the pope told journalists traveling with him that he was on a mission of “unity and brotherhood” to the cradle of civilization.
Looming over his good intentions were the stark realities of the dangers he could face: Francis made a low-key entrance at Cairo International Airport, greeted by a relatively small group of church and government officials before being whisked away in his official car, a Fiat with Vatican plates.
The pontiff declined to use a bulletproof vehicle for the visit. “Pope of Peace in Egypt of Peace,” read posters plastered along the largely deserted road leading from the airport.
His first event of the day was a private meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who declared a state of emergency in the country following the latest attacks on Christians.
Egypt is the world’s most populous Arab nation, and it is predominantly Muslim. Christians make up around 10 percent of the country’s 92 million-strong population, and the vast majority of those are Copts.
But it was the pope’s address to Al-Azhar that was considered the crucial event of the day.
He was introduced by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, widely considered among the most moderate clerics in Egypt.
In his speech, he expressed his appreciation for the pope’s refusal to blame Islam for violence and terrorism and said militants had “carelessly” and “ignorantly” misinterpreted religious texts. “Islam is not a religion of terrorism,” he said.
Francis’ approach has gained him the respect of many in the Muslim world, and the audience of influential Islamic leaders welcomed him with a standing ovation. His speech was regularly interrupted by applause.
Al-Azhar is widely respected for its scholarly interpretation of the Quran, an important task given that extremists such as the largely Sunni ideologues of the Islamic State group, or ISIS, try to use its texts to justify terrorism.
The pope opened his address with a quiet “as-Salaam-Alaikum,” the traditional Arab greeting meaning “peace be upon you.” Calling for a new “civilization of peace and encounter” he used the speech to invoke the intercession of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi who, 800 years ago, traveled to Egypt to meet with Islamic military leader Sultan al-Kamil during the Crusades.
The pope then pointed out that it was in Egypt, at Mount Sinai, that God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, religious laws that include the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”
“As religious leaders, we are called, therefore, to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the ‘absolutizing’ of selfishness than on authentic openness to the Absolute,” he said.
Religion, he stressed, should not be seen as the problem but instead as “part of the solution” to solving extremist violence. Peace will never be achieved by “eliminating God from the horizon,” he said.
This was the first visit by a Roman pontiff to Egypt since St. John Paul II’s visit in 2000, although the country’s Christians feel under greater attack today.
Francis raised their plight during his meeting with the country’s political authorities —including el-Sissi — citing the exodus of Christians from the Sinai region and the recent attacks on churches.
But he picked his words carefully by talking about the need to “consolidate regional peace” while refraining from any overt criticism of the government.
In 2011, Egypt recalled its ambassador to the Holy See after Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called for greater protection for Christian minorities in the country. Cairo viewed that as interference in its internal affairs.
Francis concluded the day with a show of solidarity with the Coptic Orthodox Church, meeting with his counterpart, Pope Tawadros II, and taking part in an ecumenical prayer gathering. That service was also attended by the leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.
The Coptic Orthodox Church broke away from mainstream Christianity in the 5th century following a dispute over the divinity of Jesus.
Francis and Tawadros also took a concrete step to healing that split by signing a declaration whereby both Catholics and Copts recognize one another’s baptisms; that means any members of the churches who want to join the other church do not need to be re-baptized.
On Saturday morning the pope is to celebrate Mass for the Catholic community in Egypt at the Air Defense Stadium in Cairo.
That is to be followed by lunch with the country’s bishops and then a meeting with priests and seminarians. He flies back to Rome that afternoon.
(Christopher Lamb is the Vatican correspondent for The Tablet of London. He is traveling with the pope to Egypt.)