Pope preaches peace, surrounded by reminders of conflict

Pope preaches peace, surrounded by reminders of conflict

Saying Mass in a soccer stadium owned and operated by the all-powerful Egyptian army, and surrounded by thick security protocols, Pope Francis on Saturday continued his campaign for peace in a country often torn by political and religious conflict, insisting that the only fanaticism pleasing to God is that of fanaticism about charity.

CAIRO, Egypt – Pope Francis continued his campaign on Saturday to promote tolerance and pluralism in a land, and a region, which is frequently scarred by religious violence and extremism, telling Egyptians that “the only fanaticism believers can have is that of charity!

“Any other fanaticism does not come from God, and is not pleasing to him!” Francis insisted while saying a Mass in a downtown Cairo stadium.

“True faith is one that makes us more charitable, more merciful, more honest and more humane,” the pope said. “It moves our hearts to love everyone without counting the cost, without distinction and without preference. It makes us see the other not as an enemy to be overcome, but a brother or sister to be loved, served and helped.

“Do not be afraid to love everyone, friends and enemies alike, because the strength and treasure of the believer lies in a life of love!” Francis said.

The very setting of the day’s liturgy, however, offered a reminder of how far the reality in contemporary Egypt, the world’s sixth most populous Islamic nation and a cornerstone for the entire Middle East, often lies from the pontiff’s pacific vision.

Technically called the “Air Defense Stadium,” the 30,000-capacity venue is owned and operated by the all-powerful Egyptian military, and was chosen in part for the ability to impose tight security measures for the papal visit which were announced on a web portal run by the armed forces’ Department of Morale Affairs.

Organizers also told local media that the setting was larger than an alternative stadium that had been considered, making it possible for more people to attend the Mass.

Both uniformed and plain-clothed police were stationed every yard along Francis’s motorcade route on Saturday, and cars and taxis were prevented from stopping. Police used metal detectors to check vehicles for explosives. Others stood guard, some on rooftops, wearing covers over their faces.

Security forces patrol the area where Pope Francis celebrated Mass for Egypt's tiny Catholic community, in Cairo, Saturday, April 29, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia.)

Security forces patrol the area where Pope Francis celebrated Mass for Egypt’s tiny Catholic community, in Cairo, Saturday, April 29, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia.)

In recent years, the site has been rechristened as the “June 30 Stadium,” a reference to a popular uprising in 2013 that brought down a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood and paved the way for former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to take power.

The name itself, therefore is a reminder of the fractious and sometimes violent political and social divides that run through the country.

In that context, Pope Francis’s homily on Saturday appealed to Egyptians to harness the power of God to convert seemingly hopeless situations into moments of grace.

“Do not be afraid to open your hearts to the light of the Risen Lord, and let him transform your uncertainty into a positive force for yourselves and for others,” the pontiff said.

“Do not be afraid to love everyone, friends and enemies alike, because the strength and treasure of the believer lies in a life of love!”

Francis insisted that authentic religious faith should never be a motive for conflict.

“True faith leads us to protect the rights of others with the same zeal and enthusiasm with which we defend our own,” he said. “Indeed, the more we grow in faith and knowledge, the more we grow in humility and in the awareness of our littleness.”

Although the pope was speaking in the context of a Catholic Mass, his words likely will be widely heard across Egypt as addressed to everyone, including the country’s Muslim majority.

This is day two of the pope’s April 28-29 visit to Egypt, marking the second time a pontiff has visited the country after St. John Paul II in 2000. On Friday, Francis opened the trip by visiting the Al-Azhar mosque and university, considered the most prestigious center of learning and culture in the Sunni Muslim world, and delivering arguably his most forceful statement to date to the Islamic world about the urgency of confronting violence and terrorism.

Addressing an international conference on peace, Francis bluntly insisted that religious leaders must “unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity.”

Though his remarks drew strong applause, including from Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayeb, many local Christians remain skeptical about the sincerity of the commitment from the country’s Islamic clerical establishment to tackle extremist forces.

“Change comes very, very, very slowly, and often it’s just for show,” said Father Rafic Grieche, a spokesman for the local Catholic church, in a recent Crux interview.

“That’s my personal opinion, it’s not the opinion of the Church, but I know these people very, very well,” Greiche said. “It’s all for show, to show that they’re open, they’re people of dialogue, etc., but deep inside it’s not very true.”

Basing his call on the Gospel story of two disciples who meet the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus, Francis urged Egyptians to believe that with God, surprises are forever possible.

“When we reach the depths of failure and helplessness, when we rid ourselves of the illusion that we are the best, sufficient unto ourselves and the center of our world, then God reaches out to us to turn our night into dawn, our affliction into joy, our death into resurrection,” he said.

Pope Francis was welcomed to the Mass on Saturday by Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak, leader of the Coptic Catholic church, in the name of the various Catholic rites and churches present in Egypt. Before heading to the stadium, the pontiff greeted a group of children from a Cairo school run by Comboni missionaries.

Despite the thick security measures, the atmosphere for the roughly 25,000 people who made it into the stadium on Saturday was festive and upbeat, with many people shouting, cheering, and waving flags. In this overwhelming Muslim society, such public expressions of Christian identity are fairly rare, and many Christians described the Mass as a moment of pride.

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