ROME – In his next-to-last public appearance of 2017, Pope Francis expressed “closeness” to Coptic Christians in Egypt reeling from a pair of attacks on Friday, one on a church in a Cairo suburb and the other on a Christian-owned business that left 11 dead, praying that God may “convert the hearts” of those who carry out such violence.
“I express my closeness to the Coptic Orthodox brothers of Egypt, struck two days ago by two attacks on a church and a business on the outskirts of Cairo,” Francis said on Sunday.
“May the Lord welcome the souls of the dead, sustain the injured, their families and the entire community, and convert the hearts of the violent,” he said.
The pope’s comments came in his traditional Sunday Angelus address, the last of calendar 2017. Later this evening in Rome, Francis will preside over a New Year’s Eve vespers service in St. Peter’s Basilica, then make a stop before the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square.
According to the Vatican Gendarmes, 30,000 people were on hand on Sunday to hear the pope’s noontime address.
Francis visited Egypt last April, and has made outreach to the country’s Coptic Orthodox Church a major ecumenical priority. At roughly ten percent of Egypt’s national population, the Copts are by far the largest Christian minority in the Middle East in terms of raw numbers, and their fate is often seen as a bellwether for Christian prospects across the region.
Egypt’s Christian minority has been targeted by Islamic militants in a series of attacks since December 2016 that left more than 100 dead and scores wounded. The country has been under a state of emergency since April after suicide bombings struck two Coptic Christian churches on Palm Sunday in an attack that was claimed by the local affiliate of the Islamic State group.
Security officials in Egypt say they’re stepping up controls around Christian churches in the country in the run-up to the celebration of Christmas, which, on the calendar followed in Eastern Christianity, falls on Jan. 7.
Overall, Francis shaped his Angelus address on Sunday as a reflection on the Holy Family, composed of the baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
He cited the New Testament scene following the birth of Christ in which Mary and Joseph took him to the Temple in Jerusalem, in order to comply with the requirements of Jewish law – showing, Francis said, that “the child belongs to God, and they’re the custodians of his life rather than its owners.”
In an extemporaneous remark, Francis added, “This makes us think … All parents are custodians, not the owners, and they have to help [their children] grow and mature.”
That insight, Francis said, illustrates that “only God is the Lord of both individual and family stories; everything comes from him.”
“Every time that families, even those which are wounded and marked by fragility, by failures and difficulties, return to the source of the Christian experience, new paths and unimagined possibilities open up,” the pope said.
“There’s no family situation that’s closed off from this new path of rebirth and resurrection,” he said.
Francis told the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday that after returning to Nazareth, Joseph and Mary had the “joy” of watching the young Jesus grow up, “developing and getting stronger, acquiring wisdom and welcoming the grace of God.”
“This is the mission towards which the family is oriented,” the pope said, “to create favorable conditions for the full and harmonious growth of children, so they can live a good life, worthy of God and constructive for the world.”
Later, Francis offered a greeting for all the families in St. Peter’s Square, as well as those following the Angelus at home, asking that the Holy Family “may bless you and guide you on your path.”
After tonight’s vespers service, the next major public event on Francis’s calendar will be the celebration of the feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6. After that, the pope’s annual speech to diplomats accredited to the Vatican, traditionally considered his most important foreign policy address of the year, falls on Jan. 8.