In 1219, a poor Italian friar called Francis of Assisi set off on a long and perilous journey to meet the Sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil. The two shores of the Mediterranean had been at war for more than a century, during which the Latin Church had tried to recover the Holy Land from Islamic rule.
The Fifth Crusade was in full swing, but Francis, who would later become one of the most venerated religious figures of Christianity, was determined to meet with the Sultan and possibly stop the violence ravaging the Eastern Mediterranean, which he had strongly condemned.
Historians say the meeting between the Muslim ruler and the Christian friar in Damietta was cordial, with the two men discussing the need for dialogue and peace between the two faiths. Francis could not prevent the wars that followed, but the encounter set a cornerstone in the relations between the two religions that Medieval iconography has immortalised in many paintings. Away from ideological and institutional barriers, Francis had crossed the sea to meet first and foremost “other men”, whose ideas and beliefs he was eager to understand.
Eight centuries later, another Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, is set to pay a two-day visit to Cairo that bears a striking similarity to the one his predecessor made. Pope Jorge Bergoglio, who chose to be named after the friar of Assisi, will visit Egypt under the motto “The Pope of Peace in the Egypt of Peace”.
“The motto Pope Francis has chosen is emblematic. His call for peace and the need for dialogue between East and West is as true today as it was 800 years ago at the time of Francis of Assisi,” said Orazio la Rocca, an author and veteran analyst who has covered the Vatican and its Popes for more than three decades.
“Violence in the name of religion was the issue then; it is still the issue today. Muslim and Christian spiritual leaders are coming together in Cairo to say that nobody can legitimately draw on religions to feed wars and terrorism.”
The visit of the Pope, who will arrive in Cairo on Friday, comes three weeks after two separate bombings killed 49 Egyptian Copts and injured another 120 during the Palm Sunday celebrations in churches across Egypt. The head of Egypt’s Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, was leading prayers in the Cathedral of Alexandria before a suicide bomber blew himself up at the gate of the church. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Considering the expansion of the circle of wars and violence and the rise in terrorism and sectarianism, the voice of reason calls us to seek the means of cooperation rather than seeking conflicts.
But if the bombings aimed to cast a shadow on the Papal journey, they had the opposite reaction: the Pope is even more determined to fulfil the visit, sources close to the Vatican said.
“The tragic events that hit the Coptic Church make the gesture of the Pope and his meetings in Cairo even more significant. It’s the bravery of peacemakers and the goodwill of all the spiritual leaders involved to make the visit possible, despite the security risks involved,” said Marco Tarquinio, the director of Avvenire, a Catholic newspaper.
Pope Francis will meet with Sheikh Muhammad Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Mufti of Al Azhar University, the most prestigious centre of learning in the Sunni Muslim world. He will also meet with Pope Tawadros II and pay a courtesy visit to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Sheikh Tayeb and the Roman Pontiff will deliver a speech at an international peace conference convened by the theological university. The event, with 300 delegates from all over the world, is meant to call for peace between religious leaders, societies and countries of the world, Al Azhar said in a statement.
“Considering the expansion of the circle of wars and violence and the rise in terrorism and sectarianism, the voice of reason calls us to seek the means of cooperation rather than seeking conflicts … To respect instead of rejecting each other, to live in peace instead of fighting and to tolerate instead of being fanatical,” said Al Azhar.
The Grand Mufti has also invited to Al Azhar the Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, a long-time champion of interfaith dialogue. Tayeb will thus bring together Christian leaders from the East and West, as Cairo goes into lockdown following the announcement of a three-month state of emergency after the Easter bombings.
The Pope and the Patriarch will find a battered Coptic community, exhausted by the continuous threats and persecutions that are causing the exodus of hundreds of families from the Sinai Peninsula and Upper Egypt towards the northern cities of the country. In areas controlled by Salafists, such as the Minya region, reports have emerged of continuous physical and psychological harassment of Copts, ranging from the beatings of women in the streets to stone-throwing. Incidents have been reported of Coptic homes and places of worship being set on fire, while people have reportedly been asked to restrain their religious services or the display of religious symbols.
Egyptian Copts number about eight million and represent about 10 percent of the total Egyptian population. They are the biggest Christian community in the Middle East, and their survival may become the testbed for the rising interfaith dialogue that the Grand Mufti of Al Azhar wishes to champion.
“Acquitting religions of terrorism is no longer enough,” Tayeb said in a significant speech delivered in February. “We need to take a step forward by bringing the principles and ethics of religions into this tumultuous reality.”
With the conference in Cairo, the Grand Mufti, who also chairs the Muslim Council of Sages, hopes to champion a new course that he said should stem primarily from spiritual leaders.
“Tensions between religious leaders have no reason to exist today … There needs to be peace between those who preach religion … Those who do not possess something cannot transmit it to others,” Tayeb said.
Imam Yahia Pallavicini, president of the Islamic Religious Community of Italy, said interfaith dialogue should be supported by a coordinated effort to translate humanitarian and universal messages into tangible working programmes.
“We need to share a common vision and a common work to defend religious plurality, where no space should be left to ambiguity. We need to build a common front against the brainwashing and manipulation of religions without hesitation, separating good from bad apples,” Pallavicini said, noting that religious plurality “is part of our society”.
“The time when faith, nation and colour of one’s skin were one thing, is over,” the imam said. “As theologians, we should guide Muslims to find a balance between citizenship and religious coherence, away from bigotry and useless formalisms.”
In this context, the visit of Pope Bergoglio also holds political meaning. While politicians both in the East and the West are busy building barriers and fanning the flames of a religious war, the Pope is flying to Cairo to send out exactly the opposite message, Tarquinio said.
“The Pope fills a political void. Spiritual leaders in Egypt will show the efficacy of simple gestures in building bridges between communities, in stark contrast to the ineptitude of those politicians who dangerously manipulate the religious discourse for other gains,” he said.