VATICAN — Ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt on April 28 and 29, I.Media interviewed Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman for the Catholic Coptic Church in Egypt, about the expectations and context of this historic visit.
I.MEDIA: What’s at stake when Pope Francis visits Cairo on the 28th and 29th of April?
Fr. Rafic Greiche: Before the double-bombing on Palm Sunday, the purpose of the trip was to visit Egypt, and to meet with Patriarch Tawadros II, the great Imam Al-Tayeb, President Al-Sissi, and the Catholic Church. After the attacks, however, the journey has taken on another perspective: The pope himself insisted on coming, meaning that he was not intimidated by the explosions. We have seen a courageous pope, in solidarity with the people and the Church in Egypt. Particularly with the Copts who were targeted, but also with all Egyptians.
We therefore expect a message of peace and solidarity, but also a message of hope. The pope’s visit is extremely important for the country and for the Church. Egypt, for its part, must show that it is staying true to itself in spite of the attacks.
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Pope Francis is traveling to Egypt 17 years after the visit of Pope John Paul II. What developments do you see?
Fr. Rafic Greiche: In the current context, there are many changes in the mentality of non-Christian Egyptians. This is especially true as Christians were an extremely important force during the revolution of June 30, 2013, to overthrow the Islamic government of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, Christians have been well regarded, even though the terrorism continues. Terrorists are targeting Christians because of their solidarity with the June 30th revolution.
After the two bombings in Tanta and Alexandria, Muslims came to offer their condolences, attend the funerals, and to say that “this is not Islam.” We feel a positive change. Previously, Muslims were reluctant to interact with Christians because of the Salafist discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood in the mosques. Today, the mistrust of Christians has disappeared.
Is the Catholic Church in Egypt being forgotten by the Orthodox?
Fr. Rafic Greiche: In Egypt, there are seven Eastern Catholic Churches: The Catholic Copts, who are the majority; the Melkites, the Maronites, the Assyrians, the Chaldeans, the Armenians and the Latins. All together, Catholics number than 300,000 in an ocean of 17 to 18 million Orthodox Copts, and the rest of those living in Egypt are Muslims. They is the little flock Jesus talked about. The Catholic Church is present in several sectors: schools, charities, youth. We also have seminarians.
But we cannot say that Catholics are isolated or forgotten by the Vatican or by the Pope. When the Pope comes to us, we see it as a special sign of love.
What are the expectations of Christians vis-à-vis President Al-Sissi and the great Imam El-Tayeb?
Fr. Rafic Greiche: President Al-Sissi said on several occasions that he loved Christians and wanted Egyptian Christians and Muslims to be treated equally.
As for the great Imam, he recently met with Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. While these exchanges may not bear fruit overnight, such meetings already begin a constructive dialogue between the two parties.