On Friday, Pope Francis travels to Egypt, the largest Arab country and home to the Copts, the Middle East’s largest Christian community. His principal purpose is to take part in an interfaith dialogue with Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, who heads el-Azhar, the ancient center of Sunni Muslim learning.
Begun 20 years ago, this dialogue effort is best known for Tayeb’s breaking it off in 2011, after he faulted Pope Benedict XVI for an “unacceptable interference” in Egypt’s internal affairs. Media now herald its resumption as a breakthrough, a sign of thawed relations between the two venerable institutions. For Christians, it comes at a desperate time and place: Ancient Christian communities are being relentlessly targeted by ISIS, as was underscored on Palm Sunday when two Coptic Orthodox churches were bombed, killing 45 members of the congregations.
Christian–Muslim meetings have typically been exercises in futility. They have borne little fruit, often resulting in Christian concessions and apologies that go unreciprocated. A classic example is the Vatican’s intervention with Roman city officials to facilitate the construction a Saudi-backed mega-mosque during the 1970s; Saudi Arabia has responded by continuing to ban churches within the kingdom, despite its million Christian foreign workers.
It does not augur well that in late February, in preliminary meetings for this dialogue, Vatican diplomats reportedly avoided sensitive issues, called generally for more tolerance and less religious extremism, and obsequiously remarked that, given its Abrahamic roots, Islam is considered “the closest religion” to Christianity, a perplexing statement that glosses over both the Old Testament, which Christianity shares with Judaism, and the absence of any sacred texts that Christianity shares with Islam.
Whether the Cairo meeting will have real significance or turn out to be more dialogue for dialogue’s sake will depend partly on what Pope Francis says.
What the Pope Can’t Say
The pope will have to take into consideration the grand sheikh’s red line: no criticism of Islam. Tayeb holds the view that to ask el-Azhar to address attacks on churches is to insinuate that they are caused by Islamic extremism. He rejects that assumption as “Islamophobia,” a form of blasphemy or “defamation against Islam.”
What angered Tayeb five years ago and prompted him to freeze the Vatican dialogue was precisely a papal denunciation of a church bombing in Alexandria at a Mass on New Year’s Eve, 2010. Pope Benedict called for the Copts’ protection. Two months ago, in a talk at the time of this round’s preliminary meetings, Tayeb indicated that his views on this score haven’t changed. While condemning the recent attacks, he stated that they have “nothing to do with religion” but “just exploit the name of Islam.” Were Francis to take Benedict’s approach, it would guarantee the dialogue’s quick, unceremonial end.
What the Pope Is Likely to Say
The pope can’t entirely ignore the elephant in the room. Since 2011, when this dialogue was suspended, ISIS and other terrorists operating under the banner of Islam have all but destroyed two of the region’s four largest remaining Christian communities, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt — churches that trace their roots to the Apostles. Severely persecuted and forced into a mass exodus, Iraq’s Christians now number about 200,000, down from their pre-2003 population of 1.4 million. Syria is reported to have lost up to half of its 2 million Christians. In 2015, Pope Francis was the first to call this “genocide.”
Moreover, when this meeting was announced last October, no one anticipated that “Islamic State of Egypt” was about to announce its formation. It did so by proclaiming in a video that the country’s Copts were its “favorite prey” and the targeting of them its “priority.” Last December, the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral compound in Cairo was bombed, and 25 of the faithful were killed. In North Sinai in February, seven Copts were murdered, and terrorists drove a thousand others from their homes. April 9 saw the twin church bombings. On April 18, the ancient monastery of St. Catherine was attacked in South Sinai. These developments can’t be ignored.
In recent weeks, in gestures and short statements, the pope has given clues as to what he might say in Egypt.
The Vatican is showing a united Christian front. Francis has issued condolences to the Coptic Church following the Palm Sunday attacks and recently broadcast that he would like his visit to “be a witness of my affection, comfort, and encouragement for all the Christians of the Middle East.” His refusal of the protection of an armored car for the trip is a brave gesture of solidarity with them. Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and head of Greek Orthodox Christians, will accompany him, along with Pope Tawadros II, representing the Coptic Orthodox Church.
In another symbolic gesture of solidarity, Pope Francis last weekend at St. Bartholomew’s Basilica in Rome participated in a memorial service for contemporary martyrs. One of the speakers was Rose, the sister of Father Jacques Hamel, a priest whose throat was slit by Muslim extremists during Mass in a French church last summer. The pope departed from his prepared remarks to offer an anecdote about the persecution besieging Christians in the Muslim world today. He said that a Muslim man he met at a migrant center in Greece told him that he saw terrorists slit his wife’s throat when she refused to discard her crucifix. Perhaps anxious not to be seen as anti-Muslim, Francis, emphasizing that the Muslim husband was aggrieved, concluded the story by calling the migrant center a “concentration camp,” a hyperbolic remark that drew press attention and offended Jewish groups.
Pope Francis took a step back from the persecution issue a few days later, in a brief, friendly video message to all the people of Egypt, not just the Copts. Referring to the recent violence, which he imprecisely described as “blind,” he said, “Our world needs peace, love, and mercy. It needs peacemakers, people who are free and who set others free, men and women of courage who can learn from the past in order to build the future, free of every form of prejudice.”
What the Pope Should Say
In Egypt, the pope is likely to continue bearing witness, invoking platitudes and keeping his focus on the Christian martyrs rather than the sensitive issue of their persecutors. He will also likely stress the philosophy of “healthy secularity,” which would ensure full citizenship for Christians, an important theme pressed in Christian–Muslim dialogue since Benedict’s time but without noticeable progress on the ground.
The pope needs to do more. He should challenge the grand sheikh to promote specific, measurable educational reforms in the Muslim world. In 2015, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi went to el Azhar and pressed the imams for a “religious revolution” to end terrorism to little avail.
The grand sheikh has given him an opening. At the preliminary meetings, Tayeb called the terrorists “deviants” from the right path of Islam and argued that they “misunderstand” Islam. “Exonerating religion from terrorism is no longer sufficient,” he said.
Taking the grand sheikh’s own words, the pope should ask him to define and clarify key terms that ISIS and other jihadi groups use to attract and recruit Muslims. Tayeb has already made progress with the doctrine of takfir, a form of excommunication which the terrorists use to justify the killing of Sunni Muslims who reject extremism.
Tayeb must do the same with all the terms that are used to justify on Islamic grounds the killing and harming of Christians and others. Clarification is needed on such loaded terms as infidel, polytheist, idolator, apostate, and blasphemer and on the doctrines of dhimmitude and jihad. ISIS uses these and other terms regularly in its videos and online publications, which resonate with enough Muslims to make Islamic terrorism an existential threat to Christian minorities in the Middle East and a growing threat worldwide. As commonly taught, such language is a source of “continual incitement” of youth, as Henri Boulad, an Egyptian Jesuit, told the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.
For a helpful example, Pope Francis could point to Morocco. Earlier this year, its High Religious Committee removed the death penalty for apostasy, rescinding its 2012 ruling that apostates were condemned to death. It clarified: “The most accurate understanding, and the most consistent with the Islamic legislation and the practical way of the Prophet, peace be upon him, is that the killing of the apostate is meant for the traitor of the group, the one disclosing secrets, . . . the equivalent of treason in international law.”
The head of the Roman Catholic Church has much to impart from Christianity’s own historical struggle with such issues in coming to terms with modernity. As a leading Sunni authority with particular influence in Egypt, where al-Azhar trains 1,000 preachers each year, the grand sheikh should be pressed to publicly and unequivocally delink from violence all the Islamic terms used to justify terror and persecution. Pope Francis should not shy away from making that demand.