Pope Francis has high hopes his visit to Egypt will help heal interfaith relations between Christians and Muslims after a series of violent attacks on churches by extremists – according to a priest who met him.
Jesuit priest Father Samir Khalil Samir told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need that the Pope’s two-day visit which starts today (28th April) is aimed at rekindling interfaith dialogue in Egypt and elsewhere.
Father Samir, a professor in Islam at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Rome, reported back on a discussion he had with the Pope: “For a long time now, he has wanted to re-knit the ties between the Vatican and Islam.
“And this is what he told me personally when I had a half-hour conversation with him a few months ago.
“He told me, ‘Why is it that I insist on the fact that Islam is a religion of peace? Because we need first of all to rekindle our friendship with the Muslims and with Al Azhar’.”
Al Azhar is an influential Sunni university.
Father Samir said there is support for inter-religious harmony in Egypt: “Most Muslims say, ‘We need the Christians’.”
But he said that more Muslims should speak out against atrocities, including the bombing of Coptic Orthodox churches on Palm Sunday which left 44 dead and more than 120 injured in blasts at St George’s, Tanta and St Mark’s, Alexandria.
Father Samir said: “They lack the courage to say that these people should be arrested. Instead of that they say: ‘It has nothing to do with Islam,’ which resolves nothing.
“But in their heart of hearts, the majority of Muslims say, ‘No, it is shameful’.”
He added: “Besides, as to the disappearance of Christians in the Middle East, in Egypt it is they who are, so to speak, the indigenous ones.
“People are aware that if they wish to maintain the national conscience, they cannot eliminate the Christians.”
Addressing the persecution of Christians by Islamist extremists in parts of the Middle East, Father Samir said: “Unfortunately, for reasons that are political, economic and religious, the Christians are leaving, more and more.
“And what is happening at the moment is what is wanted by Daesh [ISIS]. But they are fanatics. Globally speaking, the Muslims are not fanatics.”
Father Samir called for support of persecuted Christians with prayers and material help “so that they can stay on in their own homes.”
He said: “We have to help them to stay on, to help them financially as far as we are able, but also to help them morally by supporting them and attempting to put a stop to this crime which is Daesh.”
“But in Iraq and Syria, where the homes of the Christians have been destroyed, it takes enormous courage to stay on in the country.”
He added: “That is what the patriarchs are doing, including Patriarch Sako of the Chaldeans, of Babylon.
“He is fighting with all his strength to prevent the Christians from emigrating, to encourage them to remain, to save the local Church. And it is the same thing in Syria.”
Aid to the Church in Need is supporting 3,000 young people in their five-day pilgrimage to Cairo during the Pontiff’s visit, 250 Catholics from each diocese have joined 1,000 from the capital in welcoming Pope Francis to Egypt.