Since Blessed Paul VI was dubbed the “Pilgrim Pope” for becoming the first pontiff to leave Italy since 1809, and the first ever to visit the Western hemisphere, Africa and Asia, popes so far have made 157 foreign trips – 104 of those, for the record, belonging to St. John Paul II alone.
To be brutally honest, not every one of those trips actually has changed the world.
It’s not clear that John Paul’s 1982 outing to San Marino, for instance, left any deep historical imprint, and it would be hard to find many non-Czechs, and perhaps relatively few of them, with acute memories of Benedict XVI’s 2009 two-day visit to the Czech Republic. (That’s with the exception, of course, of a video showing a spider crawling across the pope’s cassock during one of his speeches.)
Every now and then, however, a trip does appear to make a difference – changing conditions on the ground, emboldening a transition already underway, or shining a spotlight on some reality that had been previously overlooked or minimized.
Examples of such momentous outings include John Paul’s first homecoming to Poland in 1979, from which many observers believe you can date the beginning of the end for Soviet Communism; his unforgettable 2000 trip to the Holy Land, climaxing in a stop at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, where he left behind a moving note condemning anti-Semitism; and Benedict XVI’s contentious 2006 visit to Regensburg, Germany, which sparked protest but also kick-started a process of reflection in the Islamic world about the need to confront religious violence.
It’s still too early to judge in which category Pope Francis’s brief trip to Egypt in late April belongs, but recent days have brought intriguing signs that the pontiff’s message may have captured a moment.
The April 28-29 trip unfolded under the shadow of Palm Sunday bombings of two Coptic churches in Egypt that left 45 people dead, a reminder of the religious extremism and violence that’s become part of the landscape in many zones of the Middle East. In that context, Francis delivered a strong call for political and religious leaders to “unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity.”
Francis also issued a robust defense of the Christian minority in the Middle East, calling them “light and salt in these lands.”
The last time a pontiff delivered even a gentle rebuke to Egypt over the plight of its Christians, which came under Benedict XVI in 2011, the country’s political and religious establishment expressed outrage, freezing diplomatic relations and inter-faith dialogue with the Vatican. This time, however, Francis was celebrated as a moral hero, suggesting that something may be shifting.
At least two recent developments in Egypt lend credence to that perception.
The first is the opening of a new Coptic Christian church in the village of Ismailia, located in the province of Minya, dedicated to St. George and the Virgin Mary. One point that makes this case remarkable is how the church came to be.
The village of Ismailia is one-third Christian, two-thirds Muslim, and in the past it’s occasionally been marked by the same sectarian strife that’s engulfed other parts of the country. In keeping with Egyptian custom, it has a “reconciliation committee” that’s supposed to arbitrate disputes, though in many cases Christians have complained that the deck on these panels is stacked against their interests.
This time, however, the committee not only voted overwhelmingly to approve the construction of a new church, but the local Muslim population actually contributed a significant share of the funding to build it.
Speaking at the dedication ceremony, the local mayor presented the outcome as an example of “national concord” and also a welcome relief from reliance on foreign capital to build places of worship, which is often a smokescreen for one group or another seeking to expand its influence.
The development also marks a break from what had been a highly restrictive policy in Egypt on the building of new churches. Here’s how Coptic Solidarity, an advocacy group for Egyptian Christians, characterized the situation: “Over the past 60 years, an average of two churches a year have been approved. Egypt has less than 2,600 churches total, which works out to about 1 for every 5,500 Egyptian Christians. (By comparison, there is about 1 mosque for every 620 Muslims in Egypt.)”
On another front, a well-known Islamic cleric, Sheikh Salem Abdul Jalil, who is also an undersecretary in the Egyptian ministry for “religious allocations,” recently went on television to denounce Christians and Jews as “infidels” and their doctrines as “corrupt.” In the past, that sort of rhetoric might have passed without comment or even been applauded, but not so this time around.
Instead, the minister for whom Jalil works, Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, swiftly put out a statement disowning the remarks and stating that Jalil would be banned from preaching in mosques. Various jurists in the country charged Jalil with an “outrage against religion,” which is a crime under Egyptian law, and he now is set to appear before a court on June 25.
The Catholic news agency Fides quoted Boutros Fahim Awad Hanna, the Coptic Catholic bishop of Minya, as saying, “Here in Egypt, there have been processes against Christians or Muslims for offending Islam, but this could be the first process against a Muslim accused of having offended Christianity and Judaism.”
Jalil has apologized for his choice of words, though he hasn’t retracted the substance of his position.
One can certainly debate the wisdom of criminalizing statements of religious belief, but the willingness to actually prosecute a powerful Muslim cleric for offending the sentiments of minority groups is nevertheless an intriguing hint of a change in climate.
To be clear, it’s not that Pope Francis’s brief two-day trip caused any of this. In truth, the basic force at play probably is that most ordinary Egyptians are simply sick of sectarian conflict, not to mention terrified that, unless checked, the sort of fundamentalist chaos that’s engulfed Iraq and Syria could strike them as well.
Nevertheless, the pope’s visit caught that mood, and, at least arguably, encouraged and augmented it. If Egypt does turn a corner in the fight against religious violence and extremism, Francis’s trip, and the message it delivered, could be remembered as an important part of that transition.
Whether that actually happens, of course, is still a huge unknown – but if it does, then Egypt clearly would go down as another papal trip that truly mattered.