ROME — A special invitation to visit Egypt was delivered to Pope Francis by Coptic Catholic bishops during their ad limina visit on February 6, during which they also gave a report on the state of the Church in their country.
“It was a formal invitation put in written form, that followed other invitations to Egypt,” Bishop Emmanuel Bishay of Luxor told CNA.
The pope has also received an invitation to visit Egypt from the country’s president and from the Grand Imam of al Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, who occupies a prestigious place in the Sunni Muslim world.
It is widely speculated that the pope might go to South Sudan in November. There is a possibility he could use the occasion for a longer trip, with a stop in Egypt.
Bishay was one of the bishops who took part in the meeting with the pope. The bishop, who is a former official at the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, described the meeting as “marvelous.”
“Previously, ad limina visits included a papal speech that gave the highlights of the situation of the country and provided recommendations. But now there are no more speeches, and each of us was invited to freely speak about the situation in his diocese,” Bishay recounted.
He said the pope welcomed Egypt’s Catholic bishops.
“It reminded me of that passage of the Gospel when Jesus sent the apostles to make disciples, and, when they are back, asks them to tell their experience,” the bishop said.
Bishay said that the bishops, beyond the particular issues of each diocese, talked about the fruits of the Catholic Church’s Year of Mercy and about the daily life of the Church in Egypt.
The pope “encouraged us to carry on our mission in the Church and at the service of Egyptian society, with a particular reference to education and dialogue,” the bishop reported.
In the Coptic Eparchy of Luxor, education is a major concern.
“We established two catechetical institutes, one in Luxor and one in Aswan, and classes are attended by about 250 people. We launched a vocational year last December 8, placing it under the Virgin Mary’s protection,” he said.
Already there are five boys discerning a vocation who could begin seminary next year.
Terrorism is another concern for the Church in Egypt.
“Egyptians are very attentive, as they know that terrorism aims at undermining the unity of our country as well as our shared life with Muslim brothers,” Bishay said.
Despite incidents in which many churches were burned by extremists, “no reaction against the Muslim community came from the Catholic Church,” the bishop reported.
The government of Egypt understands the issue and helps restore the destroyed churches. Christmas 2014 also marked a new outreach from President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who visited a Coptic Orthodox cathedral.
“For the first time ever a president of the Republic of Egypt spent the Christmas night at Mass,” Bishay said.
Egyptian society was also profoundly shocked by the beheading in Libya of 20 Orthodox Coptic faithful and a companion by Islamic State militants in February 2015.
“On one hand, this wound does not only affect the Egyptian society, but the whole world. What has happened is part of a war that is fed by the instrumentalization of religions,” the bishop said, denouncing efforts to kill in the name of God.
On the other hand, he continued, “the example of the Coptic martyrs gave strength and courage to all of us. Instead of creating divisions within the country, the message of the martyrs bore more unity. So much that people do not speak about the shedding of Christian blood, but about the shedding of Egyptian blood.”
Despite apparent improvements, Christians still have some difficulties in getting permission to build new churches. Bishay is truly optimistic. He pointed to the passage of new legislation that regulates the construction and the restoration of churches as well as the right to have places of worship where none have been built.
“We look forward to having this bill be fully understood and applied,” the bishop said.
Coptic Christians are composed of Catholics and Oriental Orthodox. Ecumenical dialogue is going on at a good pace, the bishop reported.
“We are living at a time of a positive momentum, as Patriarch Tawadros pushes a lot for Christian unity,” he said. “Back in 2013, he spent one week in Rome, and met with Pope Francis May 10. Ever since, on May 10 there is a festival of Catholics and Orthodox together. There is still a long path to go, but we are walking the path for sure.”