VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis hailed his visit to Egypt as a “sign of peace” in which he called for a “vision of healthy secularism” after recent terror attacks against Coptic Christians killed dozens of people and provoked a state of emergency.
The pope used his weekly Wednesday (May 3) audience in St. Peter’s Square to reflect on his two-day visit last week and to thank Egyptians for their warm welcome and efforts to ensure his own personal security.
But he also spoke of the need to build lasting peace in a country beset by violence and religious extremism.
“The grand historical and religious patrimony of Egypt, and its role in the Middle East region, gives it a particular obligation on the path towards stable and durable peace, based not on the law of force but on the force of law,” Francis said.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi declared a three-month state of emergency after 45 people were killed in two bomb attacks on Coptic Christian churches in April. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the bombings that occurred on Palm Sunday.
Francis said Egypt’s rich history and cultural heritage should be the basis for “the construction of social and civil order” in which all citizens regardless of their origin or religion can work together.
“This vision of healthy secularism emerged as speeches were exchanged with the president of the Republic of Egypt, in the presence of the country’s leaders and the diplomatic corps,” the pope said.
His predecessor Pope Benedict XVI used the phrase “healthy secularism” in 2008 on an official visit to Paris, where he met France’s then-president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who had used the expression to emphasize the separation of the state and religion.
Francis also reflected on his visit to Al-Azhar University, a major center of Sunni Islamic learning with global influence and expertise in interpreting the Quran.
There, the pope focused on “dialogue between Christians and Muslims” and his meeting with his “dear brother,” Pope Tawadros II, the Coptic Orthodox patriarch.
Francis said Christians should be guided by their pastors to be the “salt and light” of the Middle East and described his voyage to Egypt as “a sign of hope.”
Egypt is the seventh Muslim-majority country Francis has visited since he became pope. And a visit to Bangladesh, where almost 90 percent of the citizens are followers of Islam, is planned for later this year.
(Josephine McKenna covers the Vatican for RNS)