You probably saw a few headlines this past weekend about Pope Francis' historic trip to Egypt. Of course the last few popes have made it a point to travel extensively throughout the world but, for the most part, they have visited countries with large Christian populations or the Holy Land. Egypt may have played a major role in the early history of the Church, but has long been a predominantly Muslim country and thus a striking and significant choice for a papal visit. Adding gravity to the trip is the fact that the visit came on the heals of terrorist attacks on St. George's Church in the city of Tanta, Egypt on Palm Sunday that claimed 45 lives and injured 126 more. Despite these attacks, however, the climate in the country overall seemed significantly more welcoming to the Holy Father than one may have expected just a few years ago. We should be paying attention to this visit and the reception of the pope for three primary reasons:
- History: Pope Francis' visit is a reminder of a visit to the country by his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, almost 800 years ago in 1219. St. Francis made a trip during the Fifth Crusade in order to search for peace between the Christian and Muslim worlds and to convert Sultan Al-Kamil, the ruler of Egypt, to Christianity. While the sultan did not convert and the crusade was not ended, the devotion and holiness of St. Francis left a lasting mark on the Muslim conception of Christianity. All early reports indicate that Pope Francis, like the holy friar before him, captured the hearts and minds of all Egyptians, Muslim or Christian.
- Christian Unity- Pope Francis was joined on his trip to Egypt by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Patriarch of Constantinople and first-among-equals within Eastern Orthodox Christianity. While there the two met with Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, the leader of Coptic Orthodox Christianity. Pope Tawadros II represents the Oriental Orthodox Church, which was founded by St. Mark the Evangelist and separated from the Catholic Church in 451 while Patriarch Bartholomew represents the Eastern Orthodox Church, which was founded by St. Andrew the Apostle and separated from the Catholic Church in 1054. Their meeting in Egypt was an historic encounter of the three traditional branches of Christianity and three leaders of Apostolic Churches. The leaders gathered to discuss the path towards unity, to pray for the recently martyred Egyptian Christians, and to lend solidarity to a Christian community that has often been threatened by terrorist acts. Their meeting could very well mark a turning point in the reunification of Christendom, which has been divided for centuries, and give hope for all dialogues moving forward.
- Christian-Muslim Dialogue: As inspiring as the meeting between the three great Christian leaders was, Pope Francis' principle reason for visiting the Arab Republic was most likely to preach a message of peace in a country that is trying to eliminate the presence of extremist terrorism. Cairo, the Egyptian capital where Francis stayed, is traditionally the center of Islamic academics and scholarship and boasts a university, Al-Azhar, which predates Oxford and is one of the oldest centers of higher learning in the world. By meeting with Muslim leaders there, Francis is signalling a willingness of Catholic and Muslim clerics and academics to dialogue at an elevated level and work together to put an end to religious violence and intolerance. As stated before, all early returns seem to indicate that the visit was a success and that Egyptian Muslims in the universities and on the streets were struck by the simple message of the pontiff.
Keep an eye out for the continued fruits of Pope Francis' visit to Europe. We have undoubtedly just witnessed an historic moment, but, God-willing, we may also have witnessed a turning point in the relationship between the three major branches of Apostolic Christianity and in the relationship between the Catholic Church and Islam.