Various Italian media outlets reported Tuesday that Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the “first among equals” of the Eastern Orthodox Christian world, will join Pope Francis in Cairo, Egypt, for his April 28-29 visit to the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country.
The invitation for the Orthodox leader reportedly came from Ahmad al-Tayyib, the Grand Mufti of the storied Al-Azhar mosque and university in Cairo that’s seen as the most important center of learning in the Sunni world.
After Easter celebrations last Sunday at the Phanar, the headquarters of the Patriarchate of Constantinople located in modern-day Istanbul, Turkey, Bartholomew told his faithful that he had received a letter from Pope Francis expressing the hope that the two men would see one another again shortly.
Bartholomew said that moment could come “very soon.”
“I was also invited to the University of Al-Azhar at Cairo,” he said, “and on April 28 I could be with Pope Francis.”
As a result, it may well be that the leaders of both the Christian West and East join the head of the local Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, Pope Tawadros II, in presenting a united front in their meetings at Al-Azhar. That show of common cause will come roughly three weeks after bomb attacks at two Coptic churches left 45 people dead, with ISIS claiming responsibility.
Pope Francis and al-Tayyib had already been scheduled to speak at an international conference on peace at Al-Azhar in April, and presumably now Bartholomew, a longtime champion of ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue, will join the program as well.
Pope Francis is scheduled to be in Cairo April 28-29. In addition to the visit to Al-Azhar and a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Francis will also say Mass, meet the bishops of Egypt, and also hold an event for clergy, religious, and seminarians.
The coming together of pope and patriarch in Cairo builds on what has long been a close relationship between the two men.
Bartholomew attended Francis’s inaugural Mass as pope in March 2031, and the next year joined the pontiff on his trip to the Holy Land, where the two men prayed together in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Just days later, Bartholomew was also on hand in the Vatican gardens when Francis brought together Shimon Peres, then still the President of Israel, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a prayer for peace.
Also in November 2014, Francis traveled to Turkey and took part in a prayer service at the Phanar.
Last year, Bartholomew again joined Francis for a day trip to the Greek island of Lesbos, intended to highlight the plight of migrants and refugees. On that occasion, Francis and Bartholomew were together with Patriarch Ieronymos II of Athens, head of the Greek Orthodox Church. Bartholomew was also on hand with Francis in Assisi, Italy, in September 2016, to participate in an ecumenical and inter-faith summit.
While the April 28 event at Al-Azhar is clearly designed to showcase another face of Islam, one that rejects violence and embraces dialogue, there may be some tensions among the three Christian leaders as to the best way to engage al-Tayyib and the clerical establishment he leads.
Both Francis and Bartholomew have praised al-Azhar on a number of occasions, and clearly perceive strategic value in styling it as an ally in the struggle against terrorism and religious violence.
Many Christian leaders in Egypt, however, have raised questions about the depth of Al-Azhar’s commitment to reform.
“I think that the religious establishment is not serious at all,” said Father Rafic Greich, a Greek Melkite priest and spokesman for the Catholic Church in Egypt, in an April 10 Crux interview.
“That’s my personal opinion, it’s not the opinion of the Church, but I know these people very, very well,” he 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.”