Right Now: Pope Francis has arrived in Egypt, bearing a message of peace and reconciliation. The country is under a state of emergency after suicide bombings, attributed to Islamic State militants, killed at least 44 people in Coptic Christian churches on Palm Sunday.
■ It is Francis’ 18th trip outside Italy in the four years of his papacy, and his seventh to a predominantly Muslim nation. He is the second pope to visit Egypt, after Pope John Paul II, who went to Cairo and Mount Sinai in 2000.
■ The pope’s day is packed with symbolically powerful and diplomatically delicate encounters. He will lend his support to Coptic Orthodox Christians who have endured persecution and violence, reach out to Muslim leaders and meet with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who came to power after a 2013 coup.
■ Also on the pope’s itinerary: a peace conference hosted by Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al Azhar mosque; a meeting with the Coptic patriarch, Pope Tawadros II; and a Mass and meeting with Catholic clergymen and seminarians.
■ Some observers have pointed to the pope’s November 2015 visit to the Central African Republic, where Christian and Muslim militias have long clashed, as a model. Francis took off his shoes at the threshold of a mosque and said, “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters.”
Visiting at a turbulent time
Francis, a politically savvy pontiff, will attempt a balancing act. He is expected to highlight the plight of Christians after recent violence in Egypt, while also continuing his mission to reach out to Muslims. Since December, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has signaled its intent to wage a sectarian war in Egypt by killing Christians in their homes, businesses or places of worship.
Some conservatives in the church want the pope to deliver more strident and direct criticism of militants persecuting Christians in the name of Islam. But Francis has been committed to encouraging closer ties to the Muslim world.
An embattled Christian community
In the early centuries of Christianity, Egypt had a Christian majority. But in the 20th century, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, two world wars and the rise of the Pan-Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser contributed to an environment in which some Coptic Orthodox Christians felt endangered, and began to leave.
Egypt, a country of about 90 million, is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim today. An estimated 10 percent of the population is Christian, nearly all of whom belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. The vast majority of the Jewish community, who once numbered in the tens of thousands, left in the mid-20th century.
Muslims and Christians live peacefully in much of Egypt, and the country’s richest family, headed by a telecommunications magnate, Naguib Sawiris, are Orthodox Christians. But an ugly strain of sectarian prejudice runs though society, backed by discriminatory laws, that has at times led to violence.
The worst trouble tends to occur in rural areas with large Christian populations, where Muslim mobs burned homes and attacked Christians as recently as last month. Christians complain that, when clashes occur, officials nearly always side with Muslims. Wore worrying still is the specter of attacks by militants.
In 2010, extremists opened fire on Coptic Orthodox Christians leaving a Christmas Mass. Christians have also been stoned near Alexandria and harassed all over the country, and in some cases they had sulfuric acid poured on their wrists to erase tattooed crosses.
On Jan. 1, 2011, a car bomb outside the Orthodox Church of All Saints in Alexandria killed more than 20 faithful and wounded scores of others. Months later, Islamic extremists attacked a peaceful protests of Copts in Cairo, killing 27, wounding hundreds and prompting an exodus of tens of thousands.
After Mubarak’s fall
After the Arab Spring, Christians pressed for a secular, democratic state that would better protect minority rights. Many saw the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists as an ominous turn, and were openly relieved by the military takeover that removed the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi from power in 2013.
Mr. Sisi, who removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power, has pleased some in the Vatican with his efforts to better safeguard the rights of the Christian minority, though many remain troubled by his crackdowns on the Brotherhood and other political enemies.
The bombings this month — and oppressive laws barring Christian converts from changing their religious affiliation on identity documents, and imposing stiff restrictions on church building — showed that Egypt is still a trying place for Christians to live.
While Coptic Christian leaders embraced Mr. Sisi at first, many have expressed alarm over the continuation of attacks — from bombings in big cities to scattered violence in rural areas. On Dec. 11, an Islamic State suicide bomber killed dozens of worshipers at a chapel next to St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, which serves as the seat of the Coptic pope.
Religious freedom in Egypt
A recent report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom removed Egypt from the category of “country of particular concern,” after six years on the list. Instead, Egypt, which designates Islam as its state religion and considers Sharia, the legal code of the Quran, as an inspiration for legislation, is now listed among nations where religious freedom is a concern.
That was mostly a result of Mr. Sisi’s continued condemnation of sectarian attacks; his government’s conviction of radicals targeting Christian populations; and his rebuilding, under a new August 2016 law, of more than 50 churches destroyed by extremists in a rash of 2013 attacks that left 29 dead.
The report also noted that Mr. Sisi had attended a Coptic mass on Christmas Eve for a third successive year. He offered condolences in 2015 to Pope Tawadros after a separate massacre of Coptic Orthodox Christians by Islamic State militants, this time in Libya, and personally apologized to a 70-year-old Christian woman who was stripped naked and dragged through the streets by a Muslim mob in May.
While the previous year’s report had noted that a “climate of impunity” was still pervasive, this year’s observed a greater sense of legal accountability, with an increase in imprisonment for those who persecuted Christians. There has also been some easing of blasphemy convictions, though four Coptic Christian teenagers who were sentenced in February 2016 for making a private video mocking the Islamic State fled the country.
The role of Al Azhar
Perhaps most important, Mr. Sisi’s government has slowly removed extremist ideology from school books. But when it comes to Islamic formation, it is Al Azhar University, perhaps the most influential center of Sunni Muslim learning in the world, that is crucial.
The university has said it would reassess the language in its textbooks and has made improvements, according to the religious freedom report. In May, its grand sheikh visited Pope Francis in the Vatican, a visit the pope is reciprocating with his appearance at a conference on peace organized by the university on Friday.
Al Azhar trains a vast number of the Muslim world’s imams and has oversight over more than two million children and an additional 400,000 university students around the country.
Mr. Sisi’s government, which has tightened its grip on Muslim religious institutions, funds Al Azhar and pays the salaries of many clerics.
In February 2015, an Egyptian court upheld a decree asserting that only graduates of Al Azhar could preach in mosques, whether licensed or unlicensed. All Friday sermons are required to follow government-approved content.
Mr. Sisi’s efforts to exert tight control over the affairs of Al Azhar are resented by many clerics, and have been a source of some tension.