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Analysis of encounters in Egypt: Trip highlights one of pope’s key teachings

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Encounter. It’s a word Pope Francis uses often and something he insists is the concrete first step toward faith and toward building a better world.

Talking with others and not just about them is key to an authentic encounter, which was at the heart of what Pope Francis did in Egypt April 28-29. The success of the trip proved that meeting and respectfully listening to one person or group does not mean hiding one’s identity, taking sides against anyone or, least of all, pointing out the other’s flaws while pretending to have none of one’s own. Read more »

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Faith means loving others to the extreme, pope tells Egypt’s Catholics

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Catholic News Service

CAIRO — The only kind of fanaticism that is acceptable to God is being fanatical about loving and helping others, Pope Francis said on his final day in Egypt.

“True faith,” he told Catholics, “makes us more charitable, more merciful, more honest and more humane. It moves our hearts to love everyone without counting the cost.”

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to celebrate Mass at the Air Defense Stadium in Cairo April 29. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to celebrate Mass at the Air Defense Stadium in Cairo April 29. (CNS/Paul Haring)

The pope celebrated an open-air Mass April 29 in Cairo’s Air Defense Stadium, built by the anti-aircraft branch of the Egyptian armed forces. The pope concelebrated with Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak of Alexandria and leaders of the other Catholic rites in Egypt.

After spending the first day of his visit in meetings with Muslim leaders, government officials, diplomats and members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the pope dedicated the second day of his trip to Egypt’s minority Catholic community.

Arriving at the stadium in a blue Fiat, the pope was slowly driven around the stadium’s red running track in a small and low golf cart, far from the estimated 15,000 people seated in the stands high above. Yellow balloons and a long chain of blue balloons tied together like a rosary were released into the sky as a military helicopter circled high above the venue.

Helicopter gunships circled the perimeter of the stadium, while military jeeps patrolled Cairo’s streets.

Surrounded by security, the pope managed to personally greet only one small group of children who were dressed as pharaohs and other traditional figures. They hugged the pope affectionately as security tightly closed in on the group.

In his homily, the pope used the day’s Gospel reading of the two disciples’ journey to Emmaus to highlight how easy it is to feel disappointment, despair and defeat when one is trapped by a false notion of who God really is.

The disciples could not believe that the one who could raise others from the dead and heal the sick could “end up on hanging on the cross of shame,” the pope said. Believing Jesus was dead, all their dreams died with him on the cross and were buried in the tomb.

“How often do we paralyze ourselves by refusing to transcend our own ideas about God, a god created in the image and likeness of man,” he said. “How often do we despair by refusing to believe that God’s omnipotence is not one of power and authority, but rather of love, forgiveness and life.”

Like the disciples, he said, Christians will never recognize the true face of God until they let their mistaken ideas die on the cross, rise up from the tomb of their limited understanding and shatter their hardened hearts like the “breaking of the bread” in the Eucharist.

“We cannot encounter God without first crucifying our narrow notions of a god who reflects only our own understanding of omnipotence and power,” the pope said.

True faith “makes us see the other not as an enemy to be overcome, but a brother or sister to be loved, served and helped,” he said, and it leads to dialogue and respect and the courage to defend the rights and dignity of everyone, not just oneself.

“God is pleased only by a faith that is proclaimed by our lives, for the only fanaticism believers can have is that of charity. Any other fanaticism does not come from God and is not pleasing to him,” he said.

At the end of the Mass, Patriarch Sedrak thanked the pope for his visit, which, though it was brief, “has overflowed our hearts with joy and our lives with blessing.”

The warm welcome Pope Francis received from so many political and religious components of Egyptian society “is a message to the world that confirms Egypt’s nature” as a lover of peace that seeks to affirm peace in the Middle East and the world, the patriarch said.

Later in the day, before his departure for Rome, the pope met with about 1,500 priests, seminarians and religious men and women for a prayer service on the sports field of a Coptic Catholic seminary in Cairo.

He thanked the church workers for their witness and for the good they do in the midst of “many challenges and often few consolations.”

“Although there are many reasons to be discouraged, amid many prophets of destruction and condemnation, and so many negative and despairing voices, may you be a positive force, salt and light for this society,” he told them.

But to be builders of hope, dialogue and harmony, he said, they must not give in to the many temptations that come each day, including the temptation to expect gratitude from those they must serve and lead.

A good shepherd, Pope Francis said, consoles even when he is broken-hearted and is always a father, even when his children are ungrateful.

Don’t become like Pharaoh either with a heart hardened by a sense of superiority, lording over others, expecting to be served and not serve, the pope said.

“The more we are rooted in Christ, the more we are alive and fruitful,” he said, and the more they will experience “renewed excitement and gratitude in our life with God and in our mission.”

 

Follow Glatz on Twitter: @CarolGlatz.

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Pope, Coptic patriarch honor martyrs, agree on baptism

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Catholic News Service

CAIRO — Placing flowers, lighting a candle and praying at the site where dozens of Coptic Orthodox Christians were killed by an Islamic State militant last year, Pope Francis and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II paid homage to those who were killed for their faith.

Pope Francis, accompanied by Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, lights a candle outside St. Peter's Church in Cairo April 28. The pope lit the candle in remembrance of victims of a December 2016 bombing inside the church. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis, accompanied by Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, lights a candle outside St. Peter’s Church in Cairo April 28. The pope lit the candle in remembrance of victims of a December 2016 bombing inside the church. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros walked in a short procession to the Church of St. Peter, where 29 people died and 31 were wounded Dec. 11. The faithful chanted a song of martyrs, and some clashed cymbals under the darkened evening sky.

Inside the small church, the leaders of several other Christian communities in Egypt as well as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople sat before the congregation, which included family members of the victims.

A portion of one wall of the complex was splattered with blood, and pictures of those killed, many with bright smiles to the camera, were hung above. Some of the church’s stone columns were pock-marked from the debris or shrapnel sent flying from the explosion.

Each of the eight Christian leaders seated before the congregation, beginning with Pope Francis, read a verse from the beatitudes in the Gospel of St. Matthew. Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros then each said a few words in prayer, and everyone shared a sign of peace.

Led by Pope Francis, the eight leaders went to the back of the church, where each lit a small candle and placed white flowers beneath the photos of the martyrs. Pope Francis leaned low to touch the blood-stained wall and made the sign of the cross.

Earlier, in a historic and significant move toward greater Christian unity, Pope Tawadros and Pope Francis signed an agreement to end a longtime disagreement between the two churches over the sacrament of baptism.

The Coptic Orthodox Church had required new members joining from most non-Coptic churches, including those who had previously been baptized as Catholic, to be baptized again.

The Catholic Church recognizes all Christian baptisms performed with water and in “the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Orthodox who enter the Catholic Church are received as full members, but not baptized again.

In the joint declaration, the two leaders “mutually declare that we, with one mind and heart, will seek sincerely not to repeat the baptism that has been administered in either of our churches for any person who wishes to join the other.”

The document was signed during a courtesy visit with Pope Tawadros at the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral April 28.

In his speech to Pope Tawadros and other Coptic Orthodox leaders, Pope Francis said, “The innocent blood of defenseless Christians was cruelly shed.” He told them it was that innocent blood “that united us.”

“Your sufferings are also our sufferings,” he said, the first day of a two-day visit to Egypt’s capital.

“How many martyrs in this land, from the first centuries of Christianity, have lived their faith heroically to the end, shedding their blood rather than denying the Lord and yielding to the enticements of evil or merely to the temptation of repaying evil with evil?”

“How many martyrs in this land, from the first centuries of Christianity, have lived their faith heroically to the end, shedding their blood rather than denying the Lord and yielding to the enticements of evil or merely to the temptation of repaying evil with evil,” he said.

He encouraged Catholic and Orthodox to work hard to “oppose violence by preaching and sowing goodness, fostering concord and preserving unity, praying that all these sacrifices may open the way to a future of full communion between us and peace for all.”

Pope Tawadros, in his speech, said Pope Francis was following in the footsteps of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who came to Egypt nearly 1,000 years ago to meet Sultan al-Kamel and engage in “one of the most important experiences of intercultural dialogue in history — a dialogue that is renewed today with your visit.”

Calling Pope Francis one of the symbols of peace “in a world tormented by conflicts and wars,” the Orthodox leader underlined that the world was thirsting for sincere efforts of spreading peace and love, and stopping violence and extremism.

Pope Tawadros said Pope Francis’ visit “is a message for the rest of the world,” showing Egypt as a model of mutual respect and understanding.

Despite Christianity’s deep roots in Egypt, which was evangelized by St. Mark, Christians have lived through some difficult and turbulent periods, he said. But that only made people’s desire to love even greater, showing that “love and tolerance are stronger than hatred and revenge and that the light of hope is stronger than the darkness of desperation.”

“The criminal minds” behind all the violence and threats hurting Egypt will never be able to break or weaken the hearts of its citizens who are united and showing an example for future generations.

Later in the evening, Pope Francis was scheduled to go to the apostolic nunciature, where he was staying, and greet a group of children who attend a Comboni-run school in Cairo. After dinner, he was expected to greet some 300 young people who came from outside Cairo to see him.

The majority of the 82.5 million Egyptians are Sunni Muslims. Most estimates say 10-15 percent of the Egyptian population are Christians, most of them Coptic Orthodox, but there are Catholics, Protestants and other various Christian communities in the country as well.

 

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Violence profanes God’s name, pope tells religious leaders in Egypt

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Catholic News Service

CAIRO — Calling his visit to Egypt a journey of “unity and fraternity,” Pope Francis launched a powerful call to the nation’s religious leaders to expose violence masquerading as holy and condemn religiously inspired hatred as an idolatrous caricature of God.

Pope Francis embraces Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar University, at a conference on international peace in Cairo April 28. The pope was making a two-day visit to Egypt. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis embraces Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar University, at a conference on international peace in Cairo April 28. The pope was making a two-day visit to Egypt. (CNS/Paul Haring)

“Peace alone, therefore, is holy, and no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God, for it would profane his name,” the pope told Muslim and Christian leaders at an international peace conference April 28. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople was in attendance.

Pope Francis also warned of attempts to fight violence with violence, saying “every unilateral action that does not promote constructive and shared processes is, in reality, a gift to the proponents of radicalism and violence.”

The pope began a two-day visit to Cairo by speaking at a gathering organized by Egypt’s al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s highest institute of learning.

He told reporters on the papal plane from Rome that the trip was significant for the fact that he was invited by the grand imam of al-Azhar, Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb; Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi; Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II; and Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak of Alexandria.

Having these four leaders invite him for the trip shows it is “a trip of unity and fraternity” that will be “quite, quite intense” over the next two days, he said.

Greeted with a standing ovation and a few scattered shouts of “viva il papa” (long live the pope), the pope later greeted conference participants saying, “Peace be with you” in Arabic.

He gave a 23-minute talk highlighting Egypt’s great and “glorious history” as a land of civilization, wisdom and faith in God. Small olive branches symbolizing peace were among the greenery adorning the podium.

Religious leaders have a duty to respect everyone’s religious identity and have “the courage to accept differences,” he said in the talk that was interrupted by applause several times.

Those who belong to a different culture or religion “should not be seen or treated as enemies, but rather welcomed as fellow-travelers,” he said.

Religion needs to take its sacred and essential place in the world as a reminder of the “great questions about the meaning of life” and humanity’s ultimate calling. “We are not meant to spend all of our energies on the uncertain and shifting affairs of this world, but to journey toward the absolute,” he said.

He emphasized that religion “is not a problem, but a part of the solution” because it helps people lift their hearts toward God “in order to learn how to build the city of man.”

Egypt is the land where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, which include “Thou shalt not kill,” the pope said. God “exhorts us to reject the way of violence as the necessary condition for every earthly covenant.”

“Violence is the negation of every authentic religious expression,” he said. “As religious leaders, we are called, therefore, to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the ‘absolutizing’ of selfishness than on authentic openness to the absolute.”

“We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God.” God is holy, the pope said, and “he is the God of peace.”

He asked everyone at the al-Azhar conference to say “once more, a firm and clear ‘’No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God.”

Not only are faith and violence, belief and hatred incompatible, he said, faith that is not “born of sincere heart and authentic love toward the merciful God” is nothing more than a social construct “that does not liberate man, but crushes him.”

Christians, too, must treat everyone as brother and sister if they are to truly pray to God, the father of all humanity, the pope said.

“It is of little or no use to raise our voices and run about to find weapons for our protection,” he said. “What is needed today are peacemakers, not fomenters of conflict; firefighters, not arsonists; preachers of reconciliation and not instigators of destruction.”

The pope again appealed for people to address the root causes of terrorism, like poverty and exploitation, and stopping the flow of weapons and money to those who provoke violence.

“Only by bringing into the light of day the murky maneuverings that feed the cancer of war can its real causes by prevented,” he said.

Education and a wisdom that is open, curious and humble are key, he said, saying properly formed young people can grow tall like strong trees turning “the polluted air of hatred into the oxygen of fraternity.”

He called on all of Egypt to continue its legacy of being a land of civilization and covenant so it can contribute to peace for its own people and the whole Middle East.

The challenge of turning today’s “incivility of conflict” into a “civility of encounter” demands that “we, Christians, Muslims and all believers, are called to offer our specific contribution” as brothers and sisters living all under the one and same sun of a merciful God.

The pope and Sheik el-Tayeb embraced after the sheik gave his introductory address, which emphasized that only false notions of religion, including Islam, lead to violence. The grand imam expressed gratitude for the pope’s remarks in which he rejected the association of Islam with terror.

The sheik began his speech by requesting the audience stand for a minute’s silence to commemorate the victims of terrorism in Egypt and globally, regardless of their religions.

“We should not hold religion accountable for the crimes of any small group of followers,” he said. “For example, Islam is not a religion of terrorism” just because a small group of fanatics “ignorantly” misinterpret texts of the Quran to support their hatred.

The security surrounding the pope’s arrival seemed typical of many papal trips even though the country was also in the midst of a government-declared three-month state of emergency following the bombing of two Coptic Orthodox churches on Palm Sunday. The attacks, for which Islamic State claimed responsibility, left 44 people dead and 70 more injured.

Egypt Prime Minister Sherif Ismail and other Egyptian officials warmly greeted Pope Francis on the airport red carpet after the pope disembarked from the plane.

They walked together, chatting animatedly, to the VIP hall of Cairo International Airport, then the pontiff was whisked off to the presidential palace to meet el-Sissi at the start of his brief 27-hour visit.

 

Contributing to this story was Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan.

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Tight security is the ‘new normal’ as Pope Francis heads to Egypt

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Despite the ongoing risk of terrorism, Pope Francis planned to travel to Egypt as a sign of being close to the people there, said Greg Burke, Vatican spokesman.

Heightened security is part of the “new normal” in many countries, but even in the wake of the Palm Sunday attacks in Egypt, it is the pope’s desire “to go ahead, to also be a sign of his closeness” to those affected by violence and all the people of Egypt, Burke told journalists April 24. Read more »

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Pope visits Egypt next week to strengthen beset Christian minorities

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ April 28-29 visit to Egypt, a land increasingly marked by terrorist-led bloodshed, stands as part of his mission to inspire and encourage today’s actors in theaters of violence to change the script and set a new stage. Read more »

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Pope Francis to visit Egypt in April

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Accepting an invitation from Egypt’s president and top religious leaders, Pope Francis will visit Cairo April 28-29.

In response to an invitation from President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the Catholic bishops in Egypt, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II and Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar University, “Pope Francis will make an apostolic trip to the Arab Republic of Egypt,” the Vatican announced March 18.

Pope Francis accepts an icon of Mary and the Christ Child from Coptic Orthodox Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette, Kafr El-Sheikh, and Bararya, all in Egypt, before a session of the Synod of Bishops on the family in 2015 at the Vatican. Accepting an invitation from Egypt's president and top religious leaders, Pope Francis will visit Cairo April 28-29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis accepts an icon of Mary and the Christ Child from Coptic Orthodox Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette, Kafr El-Sheikh, and Bararya, all in Egypt, before a session of the Synod of Bishops on the family in 2015 at the Vatican. Accepting an invitation from Egypt’s president and top religious leaders, Pope Francis will visit Cairo April 28-29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

While saying details of the trip would be published soon, the announcement said the two-day trip would be focused on Cairo, the capital city.

It will be the pope’s 18th trip abroad in his four years as pope and the seventh time he visits a Muslim-majority nation. He will be the second pope to visit Egypt after St. John Paul II went to Cairo and Mount Sinai in 2000.

The invitation came amid increasingly closer relations between the Vatican and al-Azhar, which is considered the most authoritative theological-academic institution of Sunni Islam.

El-Tayeb visited the pope at the Vatican in May 2016, the first time the grand imam of al-Azhar was received by the pope in a private meeting at the Vatican.

The pope later told reporters that in his 30-minute discussion with the grand imam, it was clear that “they are looking for peace, for encounter.”

“I do not think it is right to identify Islam with violence,” the pope told reporters. “This is not right and it is not true.”

Pope Francis also has upheld the importance of strengthened cooperation between Catholics and Coptic Orthodox Christians. In the face of so many challenges, he has said, “Copts and Catholics are called to offer a common response founded upon the Gospel” and give a shared witness to the sanctity of human life, family life and creation.

Given the increased persecution against Christians, the pope has told Coptic Pope Tawadros, “Today more than ever we are united by the ecumenism of blood, which further encourages us on the path toward peace and reconciliation.”

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Pope Francis condemns deadly terrorist attack on Cairo cathedral

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis phoned Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria Dec. 12, expressing his prayers and condolences for the previous day’s terrorist attack at the Cairo cathedral that left 25 people dead.

“We are united in the blood of our martyrs,” the pope told the Orthodox patriarch, according to a Vatican statement.

A nun cries as she stands inside St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral Dec. 11 after an explosion inside the cathedral complex in Cairo. A bomb ripped through the complex, killing at least 25 people and wounding dozens, mostly women and children. (CNS photo/Amr Abdallah Dalsh, Reuters)

A nun cries as she stands inside St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral Dec. 11 after an explosion inside the cathedral complex in Cairo. A bomb ripped through the complex, killing at least 25 people and wounding dozens, mostly women and children. (CNS photo/Amr Abdallah Dalsh, Reuters)

The patriarch thanked Pope Francis for his closeness at such a sad time and asked his continued prayers for the Copts and for peace in Egypt, the statement said.

On a December weekend bloodied by terrorist attacks in Egypt and Turkey, Pope Francis condemned the violence and urged people to hold fast to their faith and renew their commitment to upholding basic human values.

After reciting the Angelus Dec. 11, Pope Francis offered prayers for the “victims of savage terrorist attacks” in Egypt, which also wounded dozens, and Dec. 10 in Istanbul, which killed close to 40 people, mainly police.

“The places are different, but the violence is the same,” Pope Francis said. In response to the “death and destruction,” there is only one response: “faith in God and unity in human and civil values.”

The pope also told the crowd in St. Peter’s Square that each day in prayer he is close to the people of the besieged city of Aleppo, Syria.

“We must not forget that Aleppo is a city and that there are people there: families, children, elderly, sick,” he said. “Unfortunately we have become used to the war and destruction, but we must not forget that Syria is a country full of history, culture and faith. We cannot allow this to be negated by war, which is a pile of abuse and falsity.”

Around the world, Christians reacted to the bombing at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral complex with messages of condolences.

In Washington, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted that St. Mark himself was no stranger to the persecution of Christians.

“Those who gathered to worship the Lord at his cathedral this morning in Cairo are family to us,” he said in a Dec. 11 statement. “We draw near to our Coptic brothers and sisters in prayer, sorrow and comfort. And we are confident in the healing power of our Lord Jesus Christ. The lives lost strengthen the faith of Christians everywhere and offer a testament to the great privilege of worshiping God in peace.”

He, too, referred to attacks in other countries.

“This weekend has witnessed the darkness of violence reach into many places, including Turkey, Somalia and the church building collapse in Nigeria. But the light still shines! Today let us offer a special prayer for all those facing persecution,” he said.

Egyptian Catholics were quick to condemn Sunday’s church attack.

“Our heart is with Patriarch Tawadros II … and our brother church, and we wish for goodness in Egypt, and call on the heads of state to quickly bring those responsible to justice,” said official spokesman of Egypt’s Catholics, Father Rafic Greiche.

Father Greiche called the attack “a cowardly, terrorist act on a house of God,” adding that “the church in our country is suffering due to the murder and spilling of blood of innocents.”

His statements appeared on Church of Alexandria, an official website of Egypt’s Coptic Catholic Church, which accounts for a tiny percentage of the country’s larger Coptic Orthodox minority.

On the same site, Coptic Catholic Bishop Butros Fahim Awad Hanna also condemned the attack and addressed those behind it.

“We tell the terrorist that no matter what you do, Christians will remain steadfast in their faith and in adherence to their country, Egypt” said Bishop Fahim, whose province of Minya is a traditional Christian stronghold in the predominantly Muslim North African nation.

Egyptian TV showed horrific images of the attack’s aftermath: toppled pews and floors stained and covered in blood.

“I thought it was Judgment Day,” said 59-year-old Magdi Ramzi, who was in the back of the church at the time of the explosion.

“It was the loudest noise I have ever heard,” he told an Egyptian TV program.

The bomb, which reportedly detonated in the women-only section of the church, killed his wife, and gravely wounded his granddaughter who was fighting for her life in a Cairo hospital, Ramzi said.

In Jerusalem, Wadie Abunassar, director of the Media Committee of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, called the attacks “barbaric.”

“I was contacting my Turkish friends to express my solidarity with them after (Saturday night’s) attack when I got the news about the explosion inside the church (Sunday morning.) Surely those who are responsible for such barbaric attacks do not know who God is and what his messages are,” he said.

Father Antonious Aloshlemey, general secretary of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem, expressed condolences about the attack.

“We are not afraid, but this is something barbaric and inhuman, to do an attack against people who just love the church and God and who came to worship on Sunday,” he said.

 

Contributing to this story were Judith Sudilovsky in Jerusalem and James Martone in Washington.

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Pope meets with grand imam of Sunni Muslim university

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — After five years of tension and top-level silence, Pope Francis and the grand imam of one of the most important Sunni Muslim universities in the world embraced at the Vatican May 23.

Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt's al-Azhar mosque and university, during a private meeting at the Vatican May 23. (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)

Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque and university, during a private meeting at the Vatican May 23. (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)

“The meeting is the message,” the pope told Ahmad el-Tayeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar University, as the religious scholar approached him just inside the door of the papal library.

El-Tayeb’s spring visit was the first meeting between a pontiff and a grand imam since the Muslim university in Cairo suspended talks in 2011.

Established in 1998, the formal dialogue between al-Azhar and the Vatican started to fray in 2006, after now-retired Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech in Regensburg, Germany. Al-Azhar officials and millions of Muslims around the world said the speech linked Islam to violence.

Al-Azhar halted the talks altogether in 2011 after the former pope had said Christians in the Middle East were facing persecution. Al-Azhar claimed that Pope Benedict had offended Islam and Muslims once more by focusing only on the suffering of Christians when many Muslims were suffering as well.

In February, Bishop Miguel Ayuso Guixot, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, delivered a letter to el-Tayeb from Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, council president, inviting him to the Vatican to meet the pope.

Cardinal Tauran and Bishop Ayuso welcomed the imam to the Vatican May 23 and accompanied him to the papal meeting.

Pope Francis sat to the side of his desk facing the grand imam rather than behind his desk as he customarily does when meeting with a visiting head of state.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the pope spoke privately with el-Tayeb for 25 minutes and the conversation included a discussion about “the great significance of this new encounter within the scope of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam.”

“They then dwelled upon the common commitment of the authorities and the faithful of the great religions for world peace, the rejection of violence and terrorism (and) the situation of Christians in the context of conflicts and tensions in the Middle East as well as their protection,” Father Lombardi said in a statement.

At the end of the audience, Pope Francis presented the grand imam with two gifts: a copy of his encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” and peace medallion depicting an olive tree holding together two pieces of a fractured rock.

After meeting the pope, the grand imam was scheduled to travel to Paris to open the second international conference on “East and West: Dialogue of Civilizations” May 24 sponsored by al-Azhar University and the Catholic Sant’Egidio Community.

 

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