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The Pope's Pilgrimage to Al-Azhar

ottobattista
@ottobattista

The twin Palm Sunday bombings at Coptic Christian Churches by Islamic terrorists in Egypt, which killed 44 worshipers, draws attention to what is probably the principal reason for the upcoming visit of Pope Francis to Cairo on April 28-29. The Pontiff will likely seek the assistance of Egypt's Muslim hierarchy to help protect Egypt's Coptic Christians, the indigenous inhabitants of the country who now number about 9 million and constitute at least 10% of the population.

During his stay, Francis will meet with the Grand Imam of Cairo's al-Azhar Mosque, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb. Al-Azhar's theological complex, which houses Islam's oldest university, is considered the most influential center of Sunni Islam.

The Pope possibly hopes that the meeting with el-Tayeb will fully repair relations between the Vatican and al-Azhar. These were restored as a result of a letter sent by Pope Francis to the Grand Imam last year. The Papal letter was followed up by a visit to the Holy See by el-Tayeb in May 2016. Relations between the Holy See and al-Azhar had been severed in 2011 by el-Tayeb after he took offense at comments made by the previous Pope, Benedict XVI, on the persecution of Christians in Muslim countries.

Grand Imam el-Tayeb now appears more disposed towards normalizing relations with the Vatican, especially since his amicable visit to the Holy See in May 2016. Al-Azhar's Grand Imam is likely to be more agreeable toward Francis than he was toward Benedict. This show of flexibility might possibly also be an effort by el-Tayeb to get in line with President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi's own call for reform within Islam. However, Al-Azhar, determined to maintain its authority over theological matters, has initiated no substantive, doctrinal reforms in response to President Sisi's declaration. In fact, Al-Azhar has pushed back against attempts by some Muslim reformists who have suggested a more liberal policy concerning women's rights, including the ability to divorce.

El-Tayeb, even if he accepted responsibility for protecting the Copts, may prove unable to prevent Islamic terrorist groups from targeting Egypt's minority Christian population. The alleged cooperation between the Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood makes it especially difficult for Cairo to prevent terrorist acts. Islamic terrorist cells in Alexandria and the Sinai Peninsula, where many of the attacks on Copts have occurred, act independently of Egypt's political and religious leaders. The targeting of Christians by these groups may also be part of a larger objective to destabilize the regime of al-Sisi, who has promised security to Egyptians, particularly Coptic Christians. Radical Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS view the Copts as their enemies; many members of this Christian sect support the Sisi government.

It was, in any event, al-Sisi who invited Pope Francis to visit Egypt during the Egyptian president's visit to the Vatican in November 2014. Anti-regime elements might well attempt to stage a spectacular terrorist incident during the Pontiff's visit, particularly targeting Francis himself.

The Pope's upcoming visit is being organized by French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauron, who chairs the Pontifical Council of Inter-Religious Dialogue. Cardinal Tauron is, no doubt, cognizant of the "red line" laid down by the Grand Imam if the Vatican wishes to have amicable relations with the Muslim leadership. During a meeting between the former Papal Nuncio to Cairo, Archbishop Jean-Paul Gobel, and el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam warned him that "speaking about Islam in a negative manner was a 'red line' that must not be crossed." However, given the Pope's past reluctance to condemn radical Islamic concepts, it is unlikely that, during his visit to Egypt, he will depart from this cautious public posture. Comments, if any, by Pope Francis on Muslim violence against Christians will, no doubt, be diplomatic and muted. If there are any condemnations of violence against the Coptic Christians, they are likely to be articulated only by the Grand Imam and the Egyptian President.

Nevertheless, Pope Francis will, it appears, publicly demonstrate his solidarity with fellow Christians by championing the Coptic Pope Tawadros II during memorial services for the recently martyred Copts. Francis, who is known to be fond of Tawadros, might express his deep personal concern for the welfare of the Coptic Pope -- who was celebrating Mass inside St. Mark's Cathedral when the bomber detonated his explosives just outside.

Francis is apparently most anxious to bring Copts and Catholics closer together, in the hope that the Egyptian Church will ultimately formally reunite with the Holy See. The Coptic Church first split from Rome in 451 A.D. However, the Vatican maintains deep respect for the Egyptian Church, which was established by one of the four authors of the Gospels, St. Mark, in Alexandria as early as 42 A.D.[1]

Catholic Pope Francis greets Egyptian Coptic Pope Tawadros II at the Vatican, on May 10, 2013. 

If the Pope's humble bearing is excessive, however, it might be interpreted even by peaceable Muslims as submission. If Francis is asked by the Grand Imam to pray at al-Azhar's mosque, that is a piety that el-Tayeb would not likely reciprocate in a Coptic Church in Egypt.

The public stance of the Vatican concerning Islam has been routinely cautious. The most recent example of the Pontiff's less-than-direct criticism of Islamist violence is his April 22 statement at a prayer service paying tribute to 21st Century Christian Martyrs in Rome:

Francis said the legacy of modern-day martyrs "teaches us that with the strength of love, meekness, one can combat arrogance, violence, war, and with patience, achieve peace."

A professor of Islamic Studies at the Pontifical Institute in Rome, Father Samir Khalil Samir, also an Egyptian, characterizes the Pope's diplomatic approach to Muslims, "who are the second-most important group in the world, to have a dialogue and understanding." Khalil adds:

I think it's important to say things with charity, with friendship, but to say things as they are: that it cannot continue like this; we have to rethink Islam. This is my vision. They cannot take the texts of the seventh century literally as they are in the Quran. He [the Pope] does not dare to say something like that because he doesn't know the Quran well enough, and so on. So I understand his position, but it would be better to have a clearer and more frank discussion — with openness, but also with some realism.

This clearly modulated posture was apparent during a session of the Geneva Center of Human Rights Advancement and Dialogue. The theme of the Geneva sessions was "Islam and Christianity: The Great Convergence." The March 15 Conference, attended by Muslim and Christian delegates, studiously avoided key issues of doctrinal divergence, and stressed instead alleged areas of common interest. The key sponsors of the conference were Algeria, Pakistan, and Lebanon, all of which are Muslim majority countries. The only non-Muslim state sponsor of the Conference was Malta. One of the oft-repeated themes of the sessions in Geneva was the 'feel-good' concept of the 'common Abrahamic root' of Islam, Christianity and Judaism -- although no representatives of the Jewish faith were invited to the conference. Statements by representatives of Christian churches seemed overly optimistic about the prospects of developing positive relationships with Islamic societies.

The failure to invite Jewish or Israeli representation by conference organizers was presumably not an oversight. This omission would be consistent with the UN Arab bloc's objective of isolating Israel in an apparent effort to destroy and replace it. That campaign includes efforts by Arab states to marshal support at the United Nations for suffocating Israel through diplomatic subversion as well as through economic strangulation. Facilitating the establishment of an Islamic-Christian relationship that excludes Judaism can only serve the Islamist goal of isolating Jews and Israel.

After the visit of Pope Francis to Egypt, mass murders of Egyptian Copts are likely to continue. Although relations between the Vatican and al-Azhar will improve in the near future, the honeymoon will not. The Grand Imam will doubtless protect his own theological power base and keep his distance from both the Vatican and the Egyptian regime.

Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve, where he was a Military Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Israel.

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