Balancing Act for Pope in Egypt: Outreach to Muslims, and Speaking Out for Christians

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Pope Francis departed from his prepared remarks at a special prayer service honoring Christian martyrs in Rome last weekend to tell the story of a Muslim man who watched Islamist terrorists cut the throat of his Christian wife because she refused to discard her crucifix.

“He, Muslim, had this cross of pain that he bore without rancor,” the pope said, his voice filled with emotion. “He sought refuge in the love of his wife, graced by martyrdom.”

That anecdote — balancing the brutal murder of a Christian by Islamist militants with a Muslim’s love for his wife — serves as a preview of the pope’s message when he visits Egypt on Friday.

Francis is expected to highlight the plight of Christians amid recent violence in Egypt, while continuing his mission to reach out to Muslims. Even for a politically savvy pope, that is a delicate balancing act, on top of obvious security concerns in a country recently attacked by the Islamic State.

Egypt is still suffering from coordinated Palm Sunday bombings of two Christian churches that killed more than 40 people, nearly killed the head of the Coptic Church and prompted President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to declare a three-month state of emergency.

Francis will lend his support to the roughly 250,000 Roman Catholics in Egypt and insist on the protection of minority rights, including those of its nearly 10 million Coptic Christians, in a meeting Friday with Mr. Sisi, according to Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian-born Jesuit priest who has seen the pope’s prepared remarks.

He will also meet with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al Azhar mosque — Sunni Islam’s most influential training center of imams — and speak at a peace conference organized by the mosque. The pope finishes the day by meeting his Coptic Christian counterpart, Pope Tawadros II, who barely escaped the bombings on Palm Sunday.

“It’s an encounter of consolation, promotion and communion with the small Catholic community,” said Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the prefect for the Congregation for Eastern Churches, who is expected to join Francis on the trip. “But it’s of great importance from an ecumenical point of view. And, of course, it is very important for dialogue with Islam, for the meeting with the sheikh of Al-Ahzar.”

Like Pope John Paul II, who in 2000 became the first modern pope to visit Egypt, Francis is a politically attuned global player. It is perhaps no accident that he drew attention to his remarks about Christian martyrs this weekend by comparing the Greek refugee camp — where he said he met the Muslim husband of the slain Christian woman — to a “concentration camp.”

His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, was less adroit. He stumbled into a public relations disaster in 2006 when, speaking at the University of Regensburg in Germany, he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor suggesting fanaticism was inherent to Islam. That set the tone for a rocky relationship with Islam.

In 2011, Benedict called on Egypt to protect religious minorities after a suicide bomber killed 21 Coptic Christians in a church in Alexandria, Egypt. The 1,000-year-old Al Azhar University, sometimes called the Vatican of the Islamic world, considered Benedict’s statement insensitive to the plight of Muslims in the Middle East and interference with internal affairs and it suspended relations with the Vatican.

But Pope Francis, who received Sheikh Tayeb last year at the Vatican in a visit that restored relations, has a greater bank of good will because of his outreach to the Muslim world.

Francis has washed the feet of Muslims during the Holy Thursday Mass, and in 2016 he washed the feet of Muslim, Hindu, Catholic and Coptic Christian migrants — a ritual that demonstrates humility and the notion that even the pope must serve his fellow man. During a trip last year to the Greek island of Lesbos, where he met the Muslim man who told him about the slaying of his Christian wife, he took 12 Muslim refugees back to Rome on the papal plane.

But he has also repeatedly, and clearly, drawn attention to the killings of Christians in Muslim countries like Egypt.

In 2013, during his first Easter season as pope, he asked the faithful to pray “especially for Christians who suffer persecution.” In 2014, he wrote a letter to all persecuted Christians in the Middle East, demanding “that all religious leaders clearly speak out to condemn these crimes” and he denounced “invoking religion in order to justify” the crimes.

He spoke in support of “Egyptian martyrs” in 2015 whose “throats were cut as they pronounced Jesus’ name.” And last year, he took the opportunity of the feast of St. Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr, to note that “the number of martyrs today is greater than in the early centuries.”

Some corners of the pope’s own church, though, think he has not gone far enough. They have balked at the logo for the trip to Egypt, which shows a cross and a crescent moon together. “Mr. Coexist,” one conservative Catholic blog sniped.

His remarks to reporters after the killing of a Catholic priest by jihadists in France last year vexed many conservatives in the church. “I don’t think it is right to equate Islam with violence,” he told reporters. “If I have to talk about Islamic violence, I have to talk about Christian violence. Every day in the newspapers I see violence in Italy, someone kills his girlfriend, another kills his mother-in-law, and these are baptized Catholics.”

Francis has studiously maintained that aversion to criticism, even in private.

Last June, Father Samir, the Egyptian priest and a leading Catholic scholar of Islam, met with the pope to talk about Islam at the pope’s apartment in the Casa Santa Marta in Vatican City. Before the meeting, Father Samir sent the pope some articles he had written noting that the Quran contained both peaceful and violent passages.

When Father Samir broached the topic, he said the pope countered that his experiences with an imam in Argentina left him with the impression that Islam was peaceful and that he viewed his mission as re-establishing good relations with Muslims.

Father Samir said he gently countered that he himself could not be blind to the negative aspects of Islam, that both needed to be considered, but that the pope seemed to have little interest in the subject. “So he simply passed to other things,” Father Samir said in an interview, adding that “his knowledge of Islam is limited to the nice discussions he had with the imam.”

Despite his critique, Father Samir said he had seen an advance copy of the pope’s address to Mr. Sisi, which he considered strong and diplomatic for its emphasis on protecting the rights of all minorities.

That is a message top Vatican officials have emphasized.

“It is necessary to have a very strong protection of Christians — they are citizens with religious rights,” Cardinal Sandri said. “Especially from a point of view of religious freedom, we must consider all citizens the same.”

The Vatican released a video message on Tuesday of the pope greeting the Egyptian people ahead of his trip, in what Francis called a world “torn by blind violence, which has also afflicted the heart of your dear land.”

“I hope that this visit will be an embrace of consolation and of encouragement to all Christians in the Middle East,” he said, adding that he carried a message of reconciliation, “particularly in the Islamic world.”