Pope in Egypt Stresses Dialogue

By Hitchen, Philippa | National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2000 | Go to article overview

Pope in Egypt Stresses Dialogue


Hitchen, Philippa, National Catholic Reporter


Following in the steps of countless pilgrims, Pope John Paul came to the foot of Mount Sinai to pray at the site where Moses is believed to have received the 10 Commandments. His visit to the 6th-century St. Catherine's Monastery marked the culminating moment of his Feb. 24-26 visit to Egypt, and the first step of his longed-for Jubilee pilgrimage to "some of the places which are closely linked to the Incarnation of the Word of God, the events which the Holy Year of 2000 directly recalls."

John Paul had hoped to begin this pilgrimage to the biblical sites in Ur of the Chaldees -- modern day Tell el-Muqayyar in southern Iraq -- to commemorate the life of Abraham, "our father in faith." Due to political instability and security concerns, the visit has so far proved impossible, and the pope had to settle for a creatively choreographed Liturgy of the Word -- a virtual voyage with video footage of the sacred sites -- in the Vatican on the eve of his departure for Cairo.

On his arrival in the Egyptian capital, the pope called for greater justice and peace in the region and condemned all forms of violence carried out in the name of religion. Amidst a massive security presence, the pope was welcomed by President Hosni Mubarak, whom the pontiff praised for his efforts at promoting dialogue between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

Also on hand at the airport was the leader of Egypt's majority Sunni Moslem population, Sheik Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, whom the pope later called on during a private visit to the prestigious Al-Azhar University. Founded in the 10th century, the university comprises an impressive mosque, a maze of faculty buildings, as well as the sheik's residence where the pope addressed a gathering of Moslem scholars and professors. He told them he believed the future of humanity depended on the dialogue between different cultures and religions.

Quoting from the Koran, Sheik Tantawi said followers of the three monotheistic religions are called on to stand up for human rights, and he thanked the pope for his personal support of the Palestinian people.

The other main focus of the visit was the delicate and complex relationship between the Catholic church and different Orthodox communities present in this part of the world. In Egypt, the Catholic population numbers less than half a percent of the population, divided into followers of seven different liturgical rites. The Coptic Orthodox church claims up to 8 million members -- over 10 percent of the population -- though government estimates put the figure as low as 4 million. The church is under the guidance of Patriarch Shenouda III.

The pope of Alexandria, as he's known here, is a scholarly and charismatic leader who was kept under virtual house arrest for three years by President Anwar Sadat, anxious to curb a wave of anti-Christian violence by Moslem extremists in the early '80s. A decade earlier, Shenouda came to pay a visit to Pope Paul VI in the Vatican and to sign a common Christological declaration, despite resistance from within his own hierarchy. …

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