‘Demogogic’ populism does not help cause of peace.
The pope invoked Egypt’s “glorious history” as an ancient cradle of civilization to argue on Friday that the delivery of a more peaceful future required a new civility that appreciated differences, resisted the violent path of close-minded absolutism and condemned extremists who camouflage terror in religious language.
“An education in respectful openness and sincere dialogue with others, recognizing their rights and basic freedoms, particularly religious freedom, represents the best way to build the future together, to be builders of civility,” the pope said in a speech at a conference hosted by Al Azhar, perhaps the most influential center of Muslim learning and religious formation in Sunni Islam. “For the only alternative to the civility of encounter is the incivility of conflict.”
As the center’s influential Sheikh Tayeb sat 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.”
In a decentralized Muslim world, the pope’s speech and his continuation of a dialogue with Sheikh Tayeb provided Muslims with a high-profile counterpoint to the radical language coming from extremists. Al Azhar forms many of the Sunni world’s imams and oversees the education of millions of Egyptian children and college students.
“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.”
To have the pope speaking of Islam as a religion of peace, especially after bombings of Coptic churches during some of the holiest days on the Christian calendar, resonated with millions of Muslims, Father Reese said. He noted that in a time of antagonistic language toward Islam, Francis “is being very countercultural; in some ways, he is almost the lone voice on these issues.”
In a speech at times blunt and other times thick with imagery, the pope said that better cooperation by the two religions could lead to a new generation refreshing an environment poisoned by the one before it. “Young people, like well-planted trees, can be firmly rooted in the soil of history,” he said, “and growing heavenward in one another’s company, can daily turn the polluted air of hatred into the oxygen of fraternity.”
Perhaps calming 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.”
Francis also used Mount Sinai, or the Mount of the Covenant in biblical language, where traditions says Moses received the Ten Commandments, as a powerful symbol for what he hoped would be a new and “urgently needed” covenant between the religions. He reminded that chief among the commandments was “Thou shalt not kill” and spoke against the proliferation of arms. “What is needed today are peacemakers, not fomenters of conflict,” he said, “firefighters and not arsonists.”
Then, in what seemed to be a critique of political Islam, Francis warned against the risk of religion “being absorbed into the administration of temporal affairs and tempted by the allure of worldly powers that in fact exploit it.”
He added, “As religious leaders, we are called, therefore, to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity.”
“We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights,” he said.
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 Mr. Melloni, arguing that the pope was essentially asking the same of Sheikh Tayeb.
But Francis, while aware of the historical aspect of his visit, clearly seemed to be pointing his message at the world powers today. In a time where anti-establishment forces are gaining in Europe and the United States, the pope seemed to have a sharp message for Western leaders who have found electoral support in antagonizing Islam. “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.”
A host with little tolerance for dissent.
Among the many tightropes Francis will have to walk is the woeful human rights record of his Egyptian host. Mr. Sisi has enjoyed loud support from Egypt’s main Christian leaders, led by Tawadros, for his tough talk about Islamic extremism. But Mr. Sisi’s strongman methods — mass detention, stifling free speech and, rights groups say, torture and extrajudicial execution by security officials — stand is stark contract to Francis’ message of peace.
Mr. Sisi further entrenched his power on the eve of Francis’ visit by signing into law new measures that allow him to appoint the country’s top judges. The law was rubber-stamped on Wednesday by Parliament, which is stuffed with Sisi supporters, and critics saw the law as the latest effort in Mr. Sisi’s drive to marginalize even the mildest critics.
An embattled Christian community.
In the early centuries of Christianity, Egypt had a Christian majority. But in the 20th century, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, two world wars and the rise of the Pan-Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser contributed to an environment in which some Coptic Orthodox Christians felt endangered and began to leave.
Egypt, a country of about 90 million, is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim today. An estimated 10 percent of the population is Christian, nearly all of whom belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. A vast majority of the Jewish community, who once numbered in the tens of thousands, left in the mid-20th century.
Muslims and Christians live peacefully in much of Egypt, and the country’s richest family, headed by a telecommunications magnate, Naguib Sawiris, is Orthodox Christian. But an ugly strain of sectarian prejudice runs though society, backed by discriminatory laws, which has at times led to violence.
The worst trouble tends to occur in rural areas with large Christian populations, where Muslim mobs burned homes and attacked Christians as recently as last month. Christians complain that, when clashes occur, officials nearly always side with Muslims. More worrying still is the specter of attacks by militants.
After Mubarak’s fall.
After the Arab Spring, Christians pressed for a secular, democratic state that would better protect minority rights. Many saw the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists as an ominous turn and were openly relieved by the military takeover that removed the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi from power in 2013.
Mr. Sisi, who removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power, has pleased some in the Vatican with his efforts to better safeguard the rights of the Christian minority, though many remain troubled by his crackdowns on the Brotherhood and other political enemies.
The bombings this month — and oppressive laws barring Christian converts from changing their religious affiliation on identity documents, and imposing stiff restrictions on church building — showed that Egypt is still a trying place for Christians to live.
Religious freedom in Egypt.
A recent report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom removed Egypt from the category of “country of particular concern,” after six years on the list. Instead, Egypt — which designates Islam as its state religion and considers Shariah, the legal code of the Quran, as an inspiration for legislation — is now listed among nations where religious freedom is a concern.
That was mostly a result of Mr. Sisi’s continued condemnation of sectarian attacks; his government’s conviction of radicals targeting Christian populations; and his rebuilding, under a new August 2016 law, of more than 50 churches destroyed by extremists in a rash of 2013 attacks that left 29 dead.
The report also noted that Mr. Sisi had attended a Coptic Mass on Christmas Eve for a third successive year. He offered condolences in 2015 to Tawadros after a separate massacre of Coptic Orthodox Christians by Islamic State militants, this time in Libya, and personally apologized to a 70-year-old Christian woman who was stripped naked and dragged through the streets by a Muslim mob in May.
While the previous year’s report had noted that a “climate of impunity” was still pervasive, this year’s observed a greater sense of legal accountability, with an increase in imprisonment for those who persecuted Christians.
The role of Al Azhar.
Perhaps most important, Mr. Sisi’s government has slowly removed extremist ideology from school books. But when it comes to Islamic formation, it is Al Azhar University, perhaps the most influential center of Sunni Muslim learning in the world, that is crucial.
The university has said it would reassess the language in its textbooks and has made improvements, according to the religious freedom report. In May, its grand sheikh visited Francis in the Vatican, a visit the pope is reciprocating with his appearance at a conference on peace organized by the university on Friday.
Al Azhar trains a vast number of the Muslim world’s imams and has oversight over more than two million children and an additional 400,000 university students around the country.
Mr. Sisi’s government, which has tightened its grip on Muslim religious institutions, funds Al Azhar and pays the salaries of many clerics.
In February 2015, an Egyptian court upheld a decree asserting that only graduates of Al Azhar could preach in mosques, whether licensed or unlicensed. All Friday sermons are required to follow government-approved content.
Mr. Sisi’s efforts to exert tight control over the affairs of Al Azhar are resented by many clerics, and have been a source of some tension.