CAIRO, Egypt – Popes are many things, including statesmen and diplomats, and sometimes grasping the message they truly want to deliver requires a bit of reading between the lines. Other times, however, a pontiff may decide that a situation is so urgent, or so unavoidable, that he simply tackles it head-on, without the usual word games or restraint.
Friday in Egypt seemed to capture Francis in one of those “put it all on the line” moods.
In effect, what Francis delivered on his first day of his brief stop in Egypt was almost his version of Pope Benedict XVI’s celebrated, and controversial, 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which Benedict stirred a firestorm of protest by quoting a line linking the Prophet Mohammed with violence.
Francis avoided the incendiary quotation, but nevertheless delivered a clear and powerful call to religious leaders – which, in the Egyptian context, unmistakably means Islam in the first place – to reject violence in the name of God.
“Let us say once more a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or the name of God,” he said. “Together let us affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith, belief and hatred.”
Addressing a nation gripped by a rising tide of Islamic extremism, and one in which the Muslim Brotherhood movement led a government as recently as 2013, Francis insisted that it’s urgent to “unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity.”
“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,” he said.
“No act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God,” he said, “for it would profane his name.” He was speaking to an international conference on peace hosted by Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque and university, widely considered the most prestigious center of learning in the Sunni Muslim world.
Several observers compared the atmosphere at Al-Azhar on Friday to the inter-religious gatherings launched by St. John Paul II in Assisi, Italy, in 1986, with imams and shamans, rabbis and Christian bishops, all gathered together in a show of common cause.
Luis Badilla, the director of the “Il Sismografo” news site in Italy, noted the striking point that several Jewish representatives were invited to the Al-Azhar event, though representing Jordan and the rest of the Middle East as opposed to Israel.
Christians make up a significant share of the Egyptian population, and frequently find themselves at risk for the pressures of a rising tide of Islamic militancy. Just two weeks ago, on Palm Sunday, bombs exploded at two Coptic churches, one in Tanta in the Egyptian Delta and the other in Alexandria, leaving 45 people dead.
Ahmad al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, seemed to capture the mood of the pope’s remarks, beginning his own address by calling for everyone in the hall to stand for a moment of silence for all the victims of terrorism and consolation for their families.
While the Vatican and Al-Azhar have a standing mixed committee devoted to dialogue, and have developed a budding partnership in recent years after an interruption in relations under Pope Benedict XVI, critics have accused the Islamic clerical establishment at the university and mosque of playing an ambivalent role – preaching tolerance and pluralism to the outside world, but behind the scenes supporting extremist currents in Egyptian culture.
In that context, Francis demanded that all religious leaders step up to counter what he described as the “incendiary logic of evil,” and said it’s past time to turn “the polluted air of hatred into the logic of fraternity.”
Violence in the name of God, Francis pointedly said, is “the negation of every authentic religious expression.”
That line drew strong applause, as did several similar statements from the pontiff along the way.
“Evil only gives rise to more evil, and violence to more violence, in a spiral than ends by imprisoning everyone,” Francis said, stressing in particular the importance of educating youth in peace.
Education has been a bone of contention in Egypt, as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has called for a revision of school curricula to resist the rise of religious fundamentalism, a suggestion that’s been resisted by some elements of the Islamic establishment in the country.
Rejecting what he described as an attitude of “rigidity and close-mindedness,” Francis called Egyptians to both “value the past and set it in dialogue with the present,” learning to include others as an “integral part” of Egyptian society.
Francis knows that while the Egyptian constitution theoretically protects religious freedom, and while al-Sisi came to power in 2014 vowing to protect Christians and other religious minorities, in reality life is increasingly precarious for Christians in this overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim society.
In that context, Francis didn’t appear to pull any punches in his advocacy for religious freedom and human rights.
“Recognizing rights and basic freedoms, particularly religious freedom, represents the best way to build the future together, to be builders of civility,” he said.
Arguing that religion has an intrinsic vocation to promote peace, “today more than ever,” Francis argued that religious leaders can’t simply pay lip service to dialogue and tolerance, but their actions have to be coherent with their rhetoric.
“It is of little or no use to raise our voices, and run about to find weapons for our protection,” he said. “What is needed today is peacemakers, not fomenters of conflict; firefighters, not arsonists; preachers of reconciliation, not instigators of destruction.”
Francis also warned against “demagogic forms of populism,” which in the context of the Middle East is often code for charismatic political and clerical leaders who play on sectarian conflicts. Likewise, he denounced “unilateral actions,” which typically refers to world powers asserting their own interests in the region, as “a gift to the proponents of radicalism and violence.”
He also called for making a clear distinction between religion and politics — what Americans might call the separation of church and state.
“The religious and political spheres are confused and not properly distinguished,” he said. “Religion risks being absorbed into the administration of temporal affairs and tempted by the allure of worldly powers which, in fact, exploit it.”
Finally, in a typical flourish, Francis insisted that real peace is likely to remain elusive without an end to the “proliferation of arms.”
“Only by bringing into the light of day the murky maneuverings that feed the cancer of war can its real causes be prevented,” the pontiff said.
Al-Tayeb agreed, delivering his own broadside at the arms trade.
“The arms trade and marketing that ensures the continuous operation of death plants and extraordinary enrichment resulting from suspicious deals backed by reckless international resolutions” is to blame for global conflicts, he said.
“For the sake of that hateful trade, hotbeds of tensions are created, and religious seditions and racial and sectarian conflicts and differences among the nationals of the same homeland are inflamed, turning human life into an unbearable miserable hell,” he said.
Al-Tayeb aggressively insisted that Islam itself is not to blame for atrocities carried out in its name.
“Islam is not a religion of terrorism for a group of followers [who] carelessly expedites to manipulate with Islamic texts and misinterpret them ignorantly.” he said. “Then, they shed blood, kill people, and spread destruction. Unfortunately, they find available sources of finance, weapons, and training.
“Likewise, Christianity is not a religion of terrorism just because a group of its followers carries the cross and decimates people without distinction between men, women, children, fighters, and captives,” he said. ” Judaism is not a religion of terrorism just because a group of its followers employs the teachings of Moses, God forbids, occupying lands and extirpating millions of the indigenous defenseless civilian citizens of the Palestinian people.”
(His line on the exploitation of Palestinians drew strong applause from the crowd at Al-Azhar.)
The Grand Imam also thanked Pope Francis for his repeated statements defending Islam “against the accusation of violence and terrorism.” The two men embraced enthusiastically when al-Tayeb concluded, and Francis referred to him as “my brother.”
Francis arrived in Egypt on Friday after a brief flight from Rome, meeting Sisi at Cairo’s presidential palace and then taking part in the peace conference at Al-Azhar. Later in the day, he was scheduled to make an address to political and civil authorities (set in a five-star hotel run by the country’s all-powerful Ministry of Defense), and then to meet Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, in an ancient Christian neighborhood of Cairo.
On Saturday, Pope Francis will say a Mass and then meet with clergy, religious and seminarians ahead of his return to Rome.
Although precise counts are elusive, somewhere between ten and twenty percent of Egypt’s population is believed to be Christian, amounting to somewhere between ten and twenty million people. It’s the most significant Christian community in the Middle East.
Though Egypt is almost 90 percent Muslim, there were nevertheless signs of enthusiasm for Pope Francis’s visit on Friday. The streets of Cairo, for instance, were lined with posters declaring that the “pope of peace” is visiting the “Egypt of peace.”
The Sisi government perceives a vested interest in playing up the significance of the trip, as it has branded itself as a secular bulwark against religious fundamentalism. That tactic, however, has drawn fire from critics, who see it as a way of deflecting attention away from the government’s contested record on human rights and political dissent.
Gihane Zaki, director of Italy’s Egyptian Academy, said that given the role of Al-Azhar in the Muslim world, Francis’s visit will have consequences beyond the boundaries of Egypt.
“It’s not just the Middle East,” she said. “Students from Africa and Asia come too, and if they can say they have a degree from Al-Azhar, it opens doors.
“Egypt is a pillar of the Middle East and the entire Muslim world, and what happens there matters,” Zaki said. “For the pope and the Grand Imam to stand under its dome and hold hands … is an important new page for the future.
“The entire scenario of the Middle East will be called into question during these two days of the pope’s visit.” she said.