When Pope Francis travels to Egypt on Friday, he will retrace a journey his namesake made nearly 800 years ago, with a somewhat similar mission in mind.
In 1219, St. Francis crossed battlefields strewn with slain soldiers to reach the Muslim sultan’s camp in Egypt. His aim was to end the Crusades, an act of idealism that fellow Christians feared would end in Francis’ death.
The friar survived, but his plan didn’t. Malik al-Kamil refused to convert to Christianity.
But the conversation was courteous, according to tradition, and ended with the sultan offering a peace treaty that included Christian control of Jerusalem. The Crusaders rejected the proposal, and fighting continued for another 72 years.
Pope Francis’ trip to Egypt is fraught with dangers of its own, from fears of a terrorist attack to questions about allying with an Egyptian president who, according to watchdog groups, has run roughshod over human rights.
In a report released on Wednesday, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called human rights conditions in Egypt “deplorable” but said the situation had somewhat improved for Christians, who compose about 10% of the Muslim-majority country. Most of those Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church.
But ISIS and other radical extremists have targeted the Copts, launching repeated attacks on their communities and churches, increasing tensions between Christians and Muslims.
ISIS-aligned fighters bombed two Coptic Christian churches on Palm Sunday, killing 45 and injuring dozens more. On April 18, more Islamic State militants attacked a monastery in Sinai, killing a police officer and wounding four others.
As if often does, the Vatican downplayed security concerns about the Pope’s trip.
“The security measures are the same as for other trips,” said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke. The Pope will travel in a regular car, not a bulletproof vehicle, and the Vatican is not sending additional bodyguards.
“We are not worried. The Egyptians want everything to go smoothly.”
But Francis will not linger long in Egypt. He will arrive in Cairo on Friday morning and leave Saturday afternoon. In the hours between, he plans to meet with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, attend a peace conference with Muslim and Orthodox Christian leaders, meet with the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, celebrate Mass in Cairo and visit Egypt’s small Catholic community.
In a video released this week, the Pope said he hopes Egyptians will view him as a “messenger of peace” and a pilgrim traveling to the land that, according to the Bible, gave refuge to the infant Jesus and his parents.
That history will provide the Pope an opportunity to plead, again, for nations to open their borders to migrants fleeing violence in the Middle East, a stance that puts him at odds with populists in the United States and Europe.
The meetings with prominent Muslim leaders, including the Grand Imam of the venerated al-Azhar University, offers a chance for the Pope to continue an oft-overlooked aspect of his papacy: his outreach to Muslims. The Egyptian trip will be Francis’ sixth to a Muslim-majority territory, a significant chunk of his overseas travels.
“The Holy Father recognizes that, from the church’s perspective, there is no relationship more important than the one between Muslims and Christians,” said Gabriel Said Reynolds, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame who was chosen by the Vatican to participate in talks with al-Azhar scholars in preparation for the Pope’s visit.
“It’s important both for the sake of religious minorities living in Muslim countries, but also for the larger social mission of promoting peace and tolerance and co-existence.”
A delicate task
On Friday, Francis will be the first pontiff since Pope John Paul II in 2000 to visit al-Azhar, the premier seat of higher learning among Sunni Muslims.
The Pope is expected to meet privately with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar and the university’s former president. It will be the second meeting between the two religious leaders, after el-Tayeb visited the Vatican last May. Afterward, Pope Francis said of that encounter, “The meeting is the message.”
Al-Azhar, which runs a network of schools, has lost some luster in recent years, said Reynolds, because its leaders are seen as closely aligned with the Egyptian government. Still, the university holds enormous sway over Sunni theology, issuing religious edicts and convening conferences like the peace gathering Pope Francis is scheduled to address on Friday
The Pope will have a delicate task in that address: Christians will expect him to clearly condemn Islamic extremism; Muslims will expect him to avoid indicting Islam itself.
El-Tayeb and other Muslim leaders have been keen to point out that Christians aren’t the only victims of terrorism. Many Muslims suffer as well. Al-Azhar broke off dialogue with the Vatican in 2011 after taking offense at former Pope Benedict XVI’s condemnation of a church bombing in which 21 Coptic Christians died.
“It was taken by al-Azhar as an unwarranted intrusion into Egyptian affairs and a misapprehending of the rights of Christians in Egypt,” Reynolds said.
Still, many Christians may expect Francis to raise the issue of their rights in Muslim-majority countries, where they are often treated as second-class citizens.
The Egyptian government, for example, imposes legal penalties on Muslim-born citizens who convert, and does not recognize their new religious identities, according to the US State Department.
His Grace Anba Angaelos, the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in England, said he hopes al-Azhar will be urged to reexamine religious texts used in its university and network of schools.
“Some of these texts are used, or misused, by radical groups, and there needs to be credible Islamic institution that can explain them in a different way. That’s something that really only al-Azhar can do.”
Pope meets Pope
The Roman Catholic Church isn’t the only religious group that calls its supreme spiritual leader a pope. The Alexandria-based Coptic Orthodox Church does as well.
Like the Catholic church, which traces its papal lineage back to St. Peter, Copts link their patronage to an apostle, St. Mark, who was believed to have evangelized in Egypt.
Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros have more in common than their religious title. They were chosen to lead their churches within several months of each other, Tawadros in November 2012, Francis in March 2013. And like Francis, Tawadros studied chemistry – he was a pharmacist for several years – before entering religious life.
Though the churches disagree on some aspects of theology, Bishop Angaelos said the two popes have a good relationship. They have bonded in recent years over the persecution of Christians in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, a bittersweet circumstance that Pope Francis calls an “ecumenism of blood.”
Ecumencial Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, also will attend the peace conference at al-Azhar on Friday. The rare convening of the Catholic, Coptic and Orthodox patriarchs will send a message to Christians worldwide, said Bishop Angaelos.
“There is a myth around the world that Christianity is becoming weaker, and that we are all merely infighting and competitive with each other,” he said.
“The reality is that what we have in common is far greater than what divides us.”