ROME — Just before Pope Francis prepares to visit Egypt, the Vatican’s Secretary of State said that despite the rising violence in the country, the pope never considered not visiting the land where Jesus and his family took refuge.
The pope “wishes to make himself present, to go where there are instances of violence, where there is conflict and in this case precisely in Egypt,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin said in a recent interview with the Vatican’s CTV. “He wants to be a messenger of peace where peace is needed the most, where there is a need to announce and act for peace.”
On April 28-29 Pope Francis will visit the city of Cairo in order to meet the Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II and the Great Imam of the University of Al-Azhar, one of the leading voices of Sunni Islam.
Recent attacks in Egypt, including the bombing of two Coptic Christian Churches that left more than 40 people dead, led some to wonder if the pope was still going to visit the country. But Parolin said that the pope still plans on showing his “closeness, solidarity and encouragement,” to the Egyptian people.
“The pope is going precisely because Egypt needs someone to announce peace and who will try to act for peace,” he said in the interview.
Father Rafic Greich, a Greek Melkite priest in Cairo and spokesman for the Catholic Church in Egypt, told Crux in an interview that he believes that in Egypt “the religious establishment is not serious at all” about opening up to positive change and tolerance toward other faith groups.
Parolin, though recognizing that terrorism represents a significant challenge for any country, insisted that the Egyptian government “must do everything possible in order to protect Egyptian citizens, regardless of their social and religious group.”
In order to fight terrorism, it is necessary for all parts of society to work together with a specific focus on educating young people, the Secretary of State said.
Families, schools, churches, and mass media have a responsibility to educate people about peace and give young people “a sense of life, give them values worth living, working and fighting for so as to not get lost in this senseless vortex of violence and destruction,” Parolin said.
The cardinal said that Pope Francis will use the opportunity of the visit to Al-Azhar to call both Christians and Muslims to peace. “This very meeting will be an example and model for peace because it will be an encounter for dialogue,” he said.
The Vatican’s relationship with Al-Azhar was only formalized last year after the Great Imam of the university, Ahmad Muhammad al-Tayyib, met with the pope. In February the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue participated at a seminar at the Al-Azhar University which resulted in a declaration calling faithful of both religions to refuse the use of violence in the name of God.
According to Parolin the pope’s speech in Cairo will be the next step in the journey towards tolerance and peace.
“I believe that the Holy Father’s meeting with Al-Azhar and its representatives will be an opportunity,” he said in the interview. It “will reiterate once more the method and the road to dialogue and encounter as a means to overcome differences and the violence that may occur, unfortunately, in the name of religion, by manipulating religion itself.”
But for Parolin the first step to fight the fundamentalist propaganda is through education “especially of children and young people to a behavior of great respect toward other religions.”
In order to do this, the Secretary of State added that language is essential, because using violent language leads to violent actions while “by using a language of peace, respect and reconciliation will certainly produce positive fruits.”
Pope Francis is not visiting Egypt only to further interreligious dialogue between Christians and Muslims but also to be in communion with the Orthodox Copts who are a minority in the country.
The pope’s visit will offer Christians in the Middle East faith and support so that they may continue to live in the country despite the challenges and persecution, Parolin said.
Christians “can contribute in all areas, for the building of the society and for a harmonious, serene and pacific cohabitation within the society,” he said adding that the pope’s visit will give Christians in Egypt “more courage, so as to not feel abandoned and therefore to persevere in their presence in the country and offer their witness.
“The Coptic-Catholic community is small, a small flame,” Parolin said concluding the interview. “The Pope also goes to help and confirm the faith so that this small flame won’t weaken, won’t burn out but continues to burn, even though it is a small flame in that society and continues to bring its contribution.”