CAIRO — Pope Francis delivered his most blunt and powerful message to the Muslim world Friday when he began a papal mission to Egypt by warning against wrapping violence and terror in the language of religion.
“As religious leaders, we are called, therefore, to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity,” the pope said at a peace conference organized by Al-Azhar mosque and university, one of the most influential centers of Sunni Islamic learning. He added: “We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God.”
The papal visit came at a critical time for Egypt, a country caught up in intensifying terrorist attacks, particularly against Christians, and a deepening crackdown by an authoritarian government.
On Friday, Pope Francis seemed to put on different hats during the day’s three stops, reflecting his interreligious, ecumenical and political roles.
At Al-Azhar, he embraced the mosque’s grand imam, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, who urged the West not to hold an entire religion “accountable for the crimes of any small group of followers.”
Pope Francis then turned to matters of state, seeking to encourage progress on human rights from his host, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. El-Sissi ousted the Muslim Brotherhood in a military takeover in 2013, and has since crushed dissent even as a recent report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found he has incrementally improved security and religious freedoms for the country’s small Christian minority, which mostly supported his coup.
“Some minutes ago you told me that God is the God of liberty,” Pope Francis said in an off-script moment as he looked meaningfully over at el-Sissi. “And this is true.”
He nevertheless recognized el-Sissi for having spoken out often and “with a clarity” against a religious extremism that crushes diversity. But then the pope pointedly asserted that “history does not forgive those who preach justice but then practice injustice. History does not forgive those who talk about equality but then discard those who are different.”
If el-Sissi, fresh off a White House visit with President Donald Trump, felt unfairly reprimanded, he didn’t show it. He smiled broadly after the pope’s speech, and clasped his hands warmly — fueling concern from some in Egypt that the pope’s visit, while well intentioned, is serving to lend an authoritarian another layer of credibility.
The pope’s supporters have repeatedly made the case that he will meet anyone, anywhere, to establish dialogue and deliver his inclusive message. And after years of lamenting the widespread murder of Christians — more so now, he has argued, than in ancient times — he wanted to meet with and show support for persecuted and suffering Christians.
And so Pope Francis ended his day in his role as protector and booster of an Egyptian Christian community that has been bloodied by repeated attacks by suicide bombers and Islamist extremists, including this past Palm Sunday, when bombs killed nearly 50 Coptic Orthodox Christians celebrating the holiday.
The pope, wearing white, met with his Coptic Orthodox counterpart, Pope Tawadros II, who was dressed in black. Amid stone arches and gold-leafed frescoes, Francis said their ever-closer bond was “sustained, in mysterious and quite relevant way, by a genuine ecumenism of blood.” He added, “Their innocent blood unites us.”
The Coptic Orthodox Church, which, according to tradition, was founded by the Apostle Mark in Alexandria a decade or so after the death of Jesus, split from Rome in A.D. 451. But a burst of dialogue in recent decades has drawn the two churches closer.
That solidarity was visible Friday night, in an emotional moment as the pope, along with chanting clerics and Orthodox patriarchs, prayed at the site of a December suicide bombing that killed 28 and marked the start of the Islamic State’s campaign against Christian churches here. At one point, Francis put his hand on a glass pane covering a bloodstained wall.
It was the climax of a busy day for the 80-year-old pope. (Upon leaving Rome, he predicted it would be “pretty intense.”)
This is his 18th trip outside Italy since his election as pope in 2013, and only the second visit by a modern pope to Egypt, after Pope John Paul II came here in 2000. Unlike that visit, security measures here seemed to separate the pope from the people of Cairo, as officials, already skeptical of public assemblies, cordoned off and essentially shut down the city in the areas he visited.
The pope’s remarks at the conference hosted by Al-Azhar are likely to be remembered as Francis’ definitive effort to improve relations with Islam and mitigate the violence roiling the region.
With el-Tayeb seated beside him on a stage decorated with minarets, Francis said that more attention needed to be paid to educating the young “to counter effectively the barbarity of those who foment hatred and violence” and warned that “evil only gives rise to more evil, and violence to more violence.”
He argued that education, which Al-Azhar has large influence over in the Sunni world beyond Egypt’s borders, was crucial to preventing new generations of radicals. The center, which trains many of the Sunni world’s imams and oversees the education of millions of Egyptian children and college students and is funded by el-Sissi’s government, has made progress in removing extremist language from textbooks.
“This is a big moment in Catholic-Muslim dialogue,” said the Rev. Tom Reese, a veteran Vatican observer and senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “Everybody in the Muslim world is going to know that this has happened.”
Perhaps speaking to the concerns of conservative Catholics worried that the pope would drift too far in his search for a Muslim interlocutor with real power, the pope made a point to emphasize that respect for one’s own identity and religious formation was a critical step to having the “courage to accept differences.” It would help the two faiths walk together not as enemies but as “fellow travelers.”
“This was more than just a meeting between two people,” Ahmed Ramzy el Sabbagh, a cleric in the red and white skullcap worn by scholars at Al-Azhar. “It was a meeting of religions.”
During his speech, Francis made a reference to St. Francis of Assisi and his visiting of Sultan al-Kamil of Egypt to promote civility even as crusaders sought to gain control of the Nile.
Alberto Melloni, the director of a liberal Catholic research institution, the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna, said that in the days leading up to the speech, Francis repeatedly made reference to the saint’s visit centuries ago and saw his own mission in a similar vein. “Saint Francis asked for his brothers nothing but the possibility to live amongst them,” said Melloni, saying that the pope was essentially asking the same of el-Tayeb.
But Francis, while aware of the historical aspect of his visit, seemed to be pointing his message at the world powers today.
“Demagogic forms of populism are on the rise. These certainly do not help to consolidate peace and stability,” he said. “No incitement to violence will guarantee peace, and every unilateral action that does not promote constructive and shared processes is in reality a gift to the proponents of radicalism.”