Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt, due to begin Friday, comes at a time of historic troubles for Christians in both Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. It will be just the second visit by a Roman Catholic pontiff to the Arab world’s most populous country, following a ground-breaking trip by Pope John Paul II to Cairo in 2000.
The papal visit follows two bloody terror attacks targeting Coptic churches in Egypt’s second largest city of Alexandria and the Nile Delta town of Tanta earlier this month, on Palm Sunday. More than 40 people were killed and dozens injured when suicide bombers blew themselves up as worshipers gathered to pray. Christian residents of the northern Sinai town of El Arish were also targeted recently by militants in gruesome killings that prompted most Christian families to leave the area.
Egyptian editor and publisher Hisham Kassem said Pope Francis’ visit, which was scheduled before the recent suicide bombings, takes place at a moment when “Christians are facing the brunt of terror attacks and their security in the country is in jeopardy.”
Given the climate of sporadic attacks by militants, both in the Middle East and elsewhere, Egyptian police and intelligence services appeared to clamp down on security in areas of Cairo where Pope Francis is expected to visit.
Parked vehicles were removed from most main streets and boulevards in Cairo’s leafy residential suburb of Zamalek, where the papal nuncio’s offices are located. Tough security measures were also implemented around Cairo International Airport and near Al Azhar University, where the pope is planning to take part in an interfaith dialogue meeting.
Pope Francis is due to pay a courtesy call on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, before meeting with the head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, to express solidarity over the recent spate of terror attacks on the Coptic community.
Both Francis and Tawadros will then take part in an interfaith meeting hosted by Egypt’s Grand Imam, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, at the country’s venerable seat of Islamic jurisprudence, al Azhar University. The Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, is also expected to attend the gathering.
A papal spokesman told Italian media that Pope Francis would not be using an armored vehicle, due to concerns that it would prevent him from being able to meet with ordinary people. Pope John Paul II was almost killed by a would-be assassin’s bullet in Rome in 1981.
Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the Catholic branch of Egypt’s main Coptic Orthodox church, told local media that Egyptian Christians were “expecting a message of peace and solidarity (as well as) a message of hope” from Pope Francis’ visit. Egypt has the largest Christian minority of any Arab country. Christians are said to make up 10% of the country’s 90-million people.
Egyptian political sociologist Said Sadek said the papal visit will “benefit Christians, as well as the government,” since it “will show the world that Egypt is stable,” thus “giving a boost to the tourism sector.” He doubts the visit will have any appreciable effect on terrorism, though, since “terrorists,” he jokes, “will continue to be terrorists.”
Both Egyptian President Sissi and Prime Minister Sherif Ismail accused regional countries of being behind recent terrorist attacks in the country, although they stopped short of naming those countries. Arab media, however, reported that the so-called Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings against Coptic churches on its website.
It is not clear who actually belongs to the group, although Egyptian media reported several years ago that leaders of an Egyptian terrorist group which then called itself “Ansar Beit al Maqdis” (i.e. “partisans of the holy city (Jerusalem)”) pledged allegiance to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“The bottom line,” argues publisher Hisham Kassem, “is that the Copts will continue to be subjected to terror attacks, if the [Egyptian] security services don’t get their act together.” But, he stresses, [Egyptian leaders] “should start naming those countries which they think are behind the terror attacks.” “Such attacks are almost an act of war,” he says, “and should be [regarded as such].”