VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican is confirming a papal trip to Egypt is under consideration but that no dates or itinerary have been finalized.
The statement Saturday by spokesman Greg Burke came after Italy’s state-run RAI reported Francis would visit Cairo’s Al-Azhar, the leading center of learning of Sunni Islam, on May 20-21.
The Vatican and Al-Azhar recently restored relations that the Cairo institute severed in 2011 to protest comments by then-Pope Benedict XVI.
Benedict in 2011 had demanded greater protection for Christians in Egypt after a New Year’s bombing on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria killed 21 people. Since then, Islamic attacks on Christians in the region have only increased, but the Vatican and Al-Azhar nevertheless sought to rekindle ties.
Last May, Al-Azhar’s grand imam, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib, visited Francis.
St. John Paul II became the first modern pope to visit Egypt in 2000, part of a special itinerary for the Jubilee Year of 2000 styled as following the footsteps of Moses. On that occasion, John Paul visited both Al-Azhar and also the headquarters of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the largest Christian community in the Middle East and roughly ten percent of Egypt’s population.
In recent years, Copts have complained of both overt harassment and violence by the country’s militant Islamic factions, and also of neglect and indifference by security services and Egypt’s political leadership.