Hopes for Pope’s visit to Egypt’s al-Azhar University

Posted on Apr 28, 2017

…continuation of the ecumenical path” towards Christian unity

Pope Francis with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar during a visit to the Vatican in May 2016 - REUTERS

Pope Francis with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar during a visit to the Vatican in May 2016 – REUTERS

(Vatican Radio)  Pope Francis on Friday travels to Cairo to meet with Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar university. The pope will spend just over 24 hours in the Egyptian capital, where he’ll also meet with the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II and leaders of the small Catholic community there.

At al-Azhar university Pope Francis will speak at an international peace conference which the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is also be attending. His visit to the prestigious Islamic institution comes just two months after the resumption of talks between the university and a Vatican delegation.

Professor Gabriel Said Reynolds teaches Islamic Studies and Theology at the University of Notre Dame in the United States and was a member of the Catholic delegation for the talks at al-Azhar in February, which came after years of tension and mistrust between the two sides.

Philippa Hitchen spoke to Professor Reynolds to find out more about the impact of the pope’s visit in the context of this new phase of Catholic-Muslim relations….

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Msgr Quicke recalls that in 2015, following the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya, the Coptic bishop in Italy, Msgr Barnaba asked if Pope Francis could send a message of solidarity with the Coptic community. On Palm Sunday, he said, following the latest attacks, the Holy Father asked him to accompany Cardinal Kurt Koch, together with his own private secretary, to Egypt with a message of condolences.

It was a very brief visit, with an overnight stay at the Apostolic nunciature in Cairo, followed by an early morning journey to Alexandria to the residence of Pope Tawadros there.

Spiritual closeness to victims

The Catholic delegation brought a message of condolences and solidarity, expressing Pope Francis “spiritual closeness in prayer, in heart and mind” to all those affected by the attacks. Msgr Quicke says the Coptic leader was “very touched emotionally, by that sign of spiritual attention” and asked “to express his closeness as well” recalling that during their meeting in Rome in 2013, “they promised one another to pray for one another every day”.

Ecumenism of blood

During that encounter in the Vatican, shortly after both men were elected, Msgr Quicke notes that Pope Francis spoke forcefully about “the ecumenism of blood” of the Coptic martyrs. He repeated the phrase following the beheadings in 2015, stressing that “they are not persecuted because they are Orthodox” or Copts, but “because they are Christian”. Citing the early Christian author from Carthage, Tertullian, he said “as the blood of the [first] martyrs became the seed for the growing of the Christian Church, [so] the blood of the martyrs becomes the seed nowadays for the unity of Christians”.

Strengthen solidarity among Christians

During the brief visit to Cairo, Msgr Quicke says he sensed that “not only the Coptic Orthodox Church, but all Christians, the whole Muslim community and all Egypt is waiting for the visit of the pope”.  Although the encounter between two popes will be an important “continuation of the ecumenical path” towards Christian unity, the papal trip will also be an opportunity for the Holy Father to meet with the small Catholic community “ to strengthen the bonds of solidarity and fraternity between all Christians”.