ROME – On Friday, the second largest church in Rome will be hosting a papal liturgy, though this time it won’t be the usual suspect celebrating. Tawadros II, the Pope of Alexandria, Egypt, and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark will be officiating at a service for the growing community of Copt-Orthodox Christians in the eternal city.
“Pope Tawadros will lead the Mass at the church of Saint Paul Apostle in Rome,” Bishop Theophilus of Turenyo confirmed in a press release July 1.
This is not the first time that the pope from across the Mediterranean has visited Rome. In March 2013, Tawadros congratulated Catholic cardinals for their “blessed choice” in electing Pope Francis. Since then, the two have exchanged correspondence, including a short video where Tawadros wished his colleague a Happy Easter.
Francis returned the favor in April of 2017 when he visited Egypt, offering the world a slew of pictures of the two pontiffs hugging, chatting, whispering and, at times, even giggling. During that trip, the popes spoke out against the persecution of Christians in the country and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.
This weekend, Italy will host a follow-up to that important encounter in the southern Italian town of Bari, where 19 religious leaders, the majority of whom are Eastern patriarchs or heads of churches, will meet for an ecumenical prayer to end war in the Middle East.
“We believe and confide that prayer represents the greatest power to take us out of any problem, resolve conflicts and illuminate our future in peace and reconciliation,” Tawadros told the Italian news agency Sir, July 4.
“Presenting ourselves all together as heads of Churches to pray with one voice for all those who are fighting is a great encouragement for those who have lost hope, and also fills our hearts with love and concern for others as we intercede for them,” he added.
The leader of the Egyptian Copt-Orthodox Church will also attend a prayer to honor Sts. Peter and Paul on July 8 at St. Paul’s Basilica Outside the Walls.
Like Francis, Tawadros has a keen interest in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue as key to promoting peace. His “open heart” policy is based on forming and maintaining relationships with everyone.
In August of last year, the pope inaugurated the first Coptic Church in Japan, and last month he congratulated all Muslims ahead of the Eid al-Fitr (Feast of breaking the Fast).
While open to dialogue with everyone, Tawadros’s brand of ecumenism has a strong nationalistic streak. Recently he called Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rise to power a “divine act,” backing his reforms and initiatives.
El-Sisi took over in Egypt through a military coup in 2013, dislodging a president elected with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Tawadros has praised the Bayt al-Aelaa al-Masryaa (“Home of the Egyptian Family”) plan, which includes activities across different religious centers to promote a spirit of national unity and interreligious dialogue. He’s also hostile to foreign intervention in the Middle East, a point that he has made clear ahead of the ecumenical prayer in Bari.
“We would like for everyone in the world to understand that Christianity is profoundly rooted in the Middle Eastern region, so it’s important that we ask you to understand our traditions and the principles on which we live,” Tawadros told Italian journalists.
“Please don’t interfere in the internal affairs of our country. We can solve our problems in a spirit of love, of dialogue and of understanding,” he added.
Beyond ecumenical concerns, the pope’s visit to Italy also promotes Egyptian national interests. For the first time an Italian delegation visited Egypt last month, July 17-21, to retrace the journey of the Holy Family, and met with Pope Tawadros II.
“The lands of Egypt were blessed by the journey of the Holy Family and the presence of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt since the first century,” the pope told the delegation, and he underscored the historical connection between the Egyptian Orthodox Church and Pharaonic civilization.
The Egyptian ambassador to Italy, Hesham Badr, said in a recent press release that the visit by the delegation, and especially their meeting with Tawadros, will give a significant boost to Egyptian tourism and put Egypt on the map as a safe destination for Christian pilgrimages.
According to the Coptic-Orthodox community in Rome, there are 5,000 Orthodox Copts living in the city and over 45,000 in Italy. Bishop Theophilus told reporters that such initiatives are important to strengthen the relationship between the two countries.
Further cementing this bond, an exhibition of Egyptian antiquities and Coptic icons in Viterbo, Italy hopes to increase tourism and interest in Egypt. When Francis blessed an icon depicting the Journey of the Holy Family in Egypt in the context of a meeting with high-level Egyptian delegates in October of last year, the hope was to promote tourism in the country, which has suffered economically since the 2011 revolution.
The efforts made to revive the Egyptian economy seem to be working, and spokespeople for the International Monetary Fund have stated that economic reforms coupled with tourism increases and natural gas production, have led to a “favorable” growth for the most populous Arab country in the world.
An important issue where Francis and Tawadros see eye-to-eye is dialogue with young people. Francis has called for a bishop’s summit on youth that will take place at the Vatican this October, aimed at addressing the principal concerns and interests of young people regarding faith and vocation today.
Tawadros has also launched a series of initiatives focusing on youth. In his sweeping reform of the Holy Synod, the highest authority in the Coptic Orthodox Church, the pope made speaking to young people a central issue.
“In order to achieve peace, every individual must have peace within himself,” Tawadros said.
“All the erroneous teachings of hate and non-acceptance of the other must be banned. We must teach the new generations to love each other and to accept differences and to live in a community full of diversity,” he added.
His keen interest in dialogue with youth will be present once more when he visits the Basilica of St. Paul this weekend. After celebrating the Mass, Tawadros will meet with young people, a staple of the itinerant 65-year-old pontiff.
“My message for them is to remember to pray for one another and to keep a good spiritual relationship with the church, especially children,” he said.