From the outside, the defining high-wire act Pope Francis would seem to face on his April 28-29 outing to Egypt is the Christian/Muslim relationship. Observers will expect him to strike the right balance between praising Islam as a religion of peace, while also pressing Islamic leaders to confront the cancer of extremism and terrorism in their midst.
Pasquale Ferrara, the Italian ambassador in Tunisia and author of The World of Francis: Bergoglio and International Politics, says the trip has “enormous” symbolic value, especially because of the pontiff’s visit to Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque and University.
“For most of the Arab and Islamic world, Al-Azhar is a point of reference, including for doctrinal matters,” Ferrara said. “To show the Catholic pope visiting the most authoritative center of Sunni Islamic theology is extremely important, because often Christianity is perceived in these countries as the religious face of economic neo-liberalism.”
Pope Francis, Ferrara said, represents “the true counter-narrative to violent extremism, repeatedly affirming that the religions are part of the solution and not part of the problem.”
Yet seen from within Egypt itself, there’s another front upon which people are anxious to see how Francis will thread the needle: The proper Christian attitude towards President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and, more broadly, the military-political complex that’s ruled Egypt almost uninterruptedly since the 1950s.
(When Egyptians today refer to “the regime,” they’re not talking just about Sisi, but about the whole series of military-backed governments since Gamal Abdel Nasser took power in 1956.)
Christians represent roughly ten percent of the Egyptian population, with the Coptic Orthodox by far the largest group, but there’s also a small Catholic presence. It’s the most sizeable Christian community in the Middle East, and it plays a vital role in national affairs.
Today there’s a strong bedrock of Christian support for Sisi, who came to power in 2014 on the back of the “June 30 Revolution” that brought down a Muslim Brotherhood-led government under Mohammed Morsi. Sisi has made the protection of Egypt’s Christians a priority, and he’s the first Egyptian president ever to attend Christmas Mass at Cairo’s St. Mark’s Cathedral.
The last time Sisi came for Christmas Mass, in January 2017, he left amid raucous applause and cheering.
On the other hand, Sisi also presides over what expert Erik Trager at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy calls “certainly the most repressive [government] in Egypt’s contemporary history.”
According to Human Rights Watch, Sisi’s security forces have arrested tens of thousands and committed flagrant rights abuses, including torture, enforced disappearances, and likely extrajudicial executions. The group estimates that at least 41,000 people, and possibly as many as 60,000, are currently in Egyptian prisons for political reasons.
This week, the parents of an Italian Ph.D. student who was researching Egypt’s independent trade unions, and who was tortured to death in early 2016, appealed to Pope Francis to bring up the case with Sisi.
“We’re sure that Pope Francis won’t be able to make this trip without remembering him, uniting himself with our demand for the truth in order to finally have peace,” said Claudio Regeni, the father of Giulio Regeni, whose mutilated corpse was discovered on Feb. 3, 2016.
A lawyer representing the Regeni family claims to have proof that senior officials in Egypt’s security forces were behind his murder.
There’s also the case of Aya Hijazi, an American citizen who works with street children in Egypt. She and her husband were arrested in May 2014 on dubious human trafficking charges and remain behind bars. In late March, a Cairo court postponed issuing a ruling in their case.
Francis may feel pressed to fill a void, since it doesn’t appear much prodding on the human rights front is likely to come from the United States under the Trump administration. On Monday Sisi met Trump at the White House, who offered the Egyptian leader a broad thumbs-up.
“I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President al Sisi,” Trump said. “He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”
Many Christian activists in Egypt also claim that Sisi’s rhetoric about being a friend to Christians isn’t always matched by reality on the ground.
Coptic Solidarity, an independent watchdog group, recently reported a rise in anti-Christian attacks during the past two years, including at least 30 cases of violence against Christians since the fall of 2016 alone.
When Muslims attack Christians in their neighborhoods and villages, the group says, police and firefighters are slow to respond, and, when they do, Christian victims are jailed instead of the Muslim perpetrators.
Under Egyptian law, community leaders can hold so-called “reconciliation meetings” to resolve disputes between Muslims and Christians. Critics say the gatherings are often used to intimidate Christians, pressuring them to drop police complaints or forcing them to leave their homes and move to another village.
Young Christian women are also frequently targeted for kidnapping and forced conversion. Recent testimony before The Helsinki Commission revealed at least 800 abduction cases, with little serious response from police or security agencies.
The two bomb blasts that ripped through Coptic churches on Sunday, including one at the historic St. Mark’s Cathedral that’s the seat of Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the Coptic church, were merely the latest example of a much deeper problem.
So far, there’s been little blowback from the country’s Christian leaders, who remain largely foursquare behind the government. When Bishop Emmanuel Bishay of Luxor, head of the organizing committee for the pope’s visit, was asked about anti-Christian persecution at a press conference on Thursday, here’s what he said:
“There is no need to worry about Egyptian Christians,” Bishay said. “The June 30 revolution saved us from drowning, because Egypt is [divinely] guarded.”
Granted, it’s completely understandable that when a group feels threatened, it’s generally not inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth. Further, Egypt’s Christians have some recent experience with what the likely alternative to someone such as Sisi would be, and it’s not terribly attractive.
Yet Egypt’s Christian leaders also have been down this road before. They were perceived as strongly supportive of former strongman Hosni Mubarak, which is one of the reasons Mubarak’s fall in 2011 triggered a spasm of anti-Christian violence.
Many Christians thus will be watching to see what kind of tone Francis strikes. If he appears balanced, applauding Sisi’s commitment to diversity and minority rights but also clear on the importance of political freedom and the rule of law, it could embolden some of the country’s Christian leaders to follow his lead.
To pull that off, without alienating or embarrassing one of the Middle East’s most outspokenly “Christian-friendly” heads of state, Francis will have to tread carefully – all of which, in addition to the obvious Christian/Muslim dynamic, makes the Egypt trip another compelling chapter in the “it’s not easy being pope” files.