The religious significance of Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt

On March 18, Pope Francis’s visit to Egypt was officially announced in what was seen as a sign of improving Muslim Catholic relations, hence a remarkable break from Benedict XVI’s stance. Shortly after the announcement, the Pope tweeted, “I invite you not to build walls but bridges, to conquer evil with good, offence with forgiveness, to live in peace with everyone.”

While the timing of the visit could not have been more significant with the region being relentlessly torn by sectarian conflicts and constantly suffering the damages incurred by religious extremism, such significance was taken to a different level with the bombings that targeted two Egyptian churches on Palm Sunday.

Contrary to expectations and amid security concerns, the visit was announced to be going ahead as scheduled. In fact, the Pope seems more determined to carry out his mission as a “messenger of peace” as he called himself when he addressed Egyptians in a videotaped speech in which he hoped that his visit would be “an embrace of consolation and of encouragement to all Christians in the Middle East.”

Father Douglas May, a Catholic priest who worked in Egypt for the past 20 years, said that the Pope’s visit aims at expressing solidarity with all Christian minorities in the Middle East and who are targeted by religious extremists. This, he added, is similarly applied to Egyptian Christians who also complain about lack of a powerful religious discourse against extremism.

“Many Christians feel the voice from al-Azhar is not strong enough against all this fanaticism, and it may even be affirming it,” he said, adding that this impression might change when they see the pope shaking hands with al-Azhar’s grand imam and other religious dignitaries. May also argued that the Pope’s visit will solve the problem of the “low level of ecumenical spirit,” as he put it, among priests of different Christian denominations in Egypt, in reference to Copts, Catholics, and Protestants.

“But when Pope Francis goes to Cairo April 28-29 to embrace Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, Christians will see that we are all one family… we are all related together by Jesus,” he said, adding that Christian lay people in Egypt are more aware of this spirit of solidarity than the clergy.

Anthony Cirelli, associate director of the Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, affiliated to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that Pope Francis’s visit would hopefully shed light on a view of Islam other than that constantly propagated by the media, especially the support Muslims in Egypt offer to Christians at times of crises such as church bombings. Middle Eastern affairs expert Augustus Richard Norton agreed.

“Given the pope’s stature and position, the major contribution he might make is distinguishing the violent terrorism of groups like the ISIS from mainstream Islam,” he said. “That’s a very important message at a time when some governments, notably our present US government, don’t seem to mind blurring the lines between the extremists and the mainstream.”

According to journalist Christopher Lamb, it is exactly this kind of discourse that earned Pope Francis a great deal of respect in the Muslim world and distinguished him from his predecessor. “When he is in Cairo, the Latin American pontiff will be keen to help Islam in any way he can turn from the ideology which inspires terrorists: he will call on all religions to condemn any violence committed in the name of God,” he wrote.

“His past denouncement of terrorist atrocities as separate from the faith of Islam has won him respect across the Muslim world as a religious leader worth listening to.”

According to former Egyptian diplomat Belal al-Masry, both the Roman Catholic Church and the Christians of the Middle East will benefit from Pope Francis’s visit to Egypt. First, the relative decline of the role of the church in Europe led the Vatican to focus more on Christians in other parts of the world.

“That is why the pope now feels responsible for Christians in the Middle East especially that they are now targeted in many countries,” he wrote, adding that Egypt was the most suitable country to start such an initiative from since it is home to the largest and most ancient Christian community in the region.

“Despite fundamental differences between the Coptic and Catholic churches, their alliance is of extreme importance for the Vatican since it is the gateway to the Christian communities of the Middle East.” Second, Christians in the Middle East feel that through being supported by a body as influential as the Vatican, they can get more protection from persecution.

“Christians of the Middle East are aware that the Vatican can champion their cause before the International Community since it has more clout than local churches which, after all, are part of a given state thus not as independent.”

Why are Egyptian Sufis at loggerheads with the government?

The relationship between Sufis and the Egyptian government has over the years been generally smooth and this was mainly due to the fact that there was hardly any conflict of interest between the two parties and because Sufis by definition are usually not involved in the political scene.

In fact, Sufis were in many cases beneficial for the Egyptian state, especially as they offered oneof the many peaceful versions of Islam that countered extremism that militants have practiced under the banner of Islam. That is why the recent tension seems quite surprising and opens the door for speculations whether the decades-long harmony is being disrupted.

It all started with the commemoration of the birth of Sayyeda (Lady) Nafissa, great granddaughter of Prophet Muhammad and venerated Islamic scholar and teacher, when the state imposed fees on the ceremony that fell this year on March 8. Abdel Hadi al-Qasabi, president of the Supreme Council of Sufi Orders, explained that modest fees had been initially paid by the council, but this year additional fees were imposed on all citizens attending the ceremony.

“This means burdening around 15 million people who come from all over the country to take part in the ceremony and to express their love for Sayyeda Nafisa and seek her blessings,” he said. “Those are the average Egyptians whose moderation and devotion we should promote, but instead we are pushing them away.” Qasabi said the additional fees were not collected against receipts and the committees that collected them had no legal standing. “In addition, the fees themselves violate law number 118 for the regulation of Sufi orders and I suspect there is corruption involved here.” Qasabi, who is also a member of the House of Representatives and head of its Solidarity Committee, said he will demand summoning the prime minister, the minister of local development, and the head of the municipal council for questioning: “They have to explain to the parliament why this is happening and why such pressure is being put on the people.”

Moustafa Zayed, founder of the Coalition for the Youths of Sufi Orders, said that the municipality rents plots of land to Sufi orders so that they can erect the tents in which the ceremony is held, but this year the prices have remarkably risen. “This led many Sufi orders to stay away from main streets, which are now extremely expensive, and to rent, instead, plots of land in the cemeteries surrounding the Sayyeda Nafissa Mausoleum,” he said. Zayed added that Sufi ceremonies have lately started to witness the appearance of a number of politicians, journalists, and celebrities. “I believe that some people want to take advantage of the ceremony to advance certain agendas, but we will not allow this,” he said, not explaining, though, whether this is related to the rising prices.

Sufis did not take kindly to such statements coming from a senior official at al-Azhar. Sufi scholar Qandil Abdel Hadi said that Shouman misrepresents al-Azhar and that is why he preferred to address the grand imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb. “I am sure that the grand imam is aware of the significance of patrons in Islam and that he will never accept that they are insulted in this manner, especially by an official from an institution that represents Islam across the world,” he said, adding that not anyone is considered a patron as Shouman made it seem. “This is only done after a series of signs that affirm a particular person has the characteristics of a patron and only then the remains are exhumed.”

The General Sufi Coalition issued a statement condemning the “insults” Shouman leveled against Sufism and the patrons and their supporters. “A senior official like Shouman should use scholarly arguments if he wants to prove a specific point, but what he did is not different from what is done by extremist groups that only hurl insults and accusations,” said the statement. According to the statement, the existence of patrons is an integral part of Sunni Islam and cannot be questioned. “Patrons did exist and they had special spiritual abilities.” The statement concluded with not accepting an apology from Shouman, if he offers any. “We count on God to do the patrons justice.”

Political analyst Ammar Ali Hassan traces the relationship between the Egyptian state and Sufis since 1952 and notes that while Sufi orders have not been technically involved in politics, they always played a major political role that was well utilized by successive regimes. “Unlike extremist Islamist groups, Sufis do not accuse the regime of apostasy and do not call for armed struggle against it, thus not presenting the regime as an enemy of Islam and not inciting people against it,” he wrote. “On the other hand, the regime offers Sufis protection from extremist groups that threaten to burn their shrines and attack their ceremonies.”

The Arab world has just got its first female pastor, meet Rola Sleiman

The Arabic word for “clergy” literally translates into “men of religion.” But this notion seems to be changing as the Arab world has just got its first female pastor.

Rola Sleiman is now the Reverend of the Presbyterian Church in Tripoli, Lebanon, thus breaking a long-standing tradition that gave preference to men in priesthood and becoming the first woman to assume such position in both the Arab region and the Middle East.

The decree to appoint Sleiman, who holds a degree from the Beirut-based Near East School of Theology, was issued by the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon on February 26, 2017 following her request for appointment. Sleiman’s ordination gave rise to speculations over setting a precedent that might transform Christian practice in the region and maybe extend beyond it.

According to Beirut-based analyst Halim Shebaya, Sleiman’s ordination might not seem significant when compared to other demands related to the empowerment of women since her job is solely spiritual, yet it is extremely progressive on a symbolic level.

“Her ordination is doubly significant in a context where women are assumed to be of an inferior status to men when it comes to certain functions: theologically (priesthood reserved to men only), politically (vast underrepresentation of women in local and national politics), and legally (discrimination in law),” he wrote.

Shebaya added that the ordination of a woman means that the church is finally not contradicting itself as it did it before as one of its most venerated figures is a woman—Virgin Mary—then no women are entrusted with church affairs. He also said that Sleiman’s example is religious, yet might still send a powerful message across the region about the role of women: “And who would disagree that this message of equality and non-discrimination is exactly what Lebanon and the Arab world needs, regardless whether it comes in religious or non-religious language.”

Father George Massouh, director of the Center for Christian and Muslim Studies at the University of Balamand, said that while Rola Sleiman is the first female pastor in the Arab world, the ordination of female pastors in protestant churches in different parts of the world is not unusual.

“While Catholic and Orthodox churches do not have female pastors, they are well aware that protestant churches do that so I don’t see why they can be surprised,” he wrote, in reference to reports that the two churches in Lebanon and elsewhere were taken aback by Sleiman’s appointment. “Pope Tawadros of Egypt received the primate of the Lutheran Church of Sweden [Antje Jackelén], who is a woman, and Pope Francis met with the same woman during his trip to Sweden,” he wrote. It is noteworthy that when asked following his visit to Sweden about the possibility of ordaining female pastors at the Catholic Church, Pope Francis said that the ban is final. Massouh explains the detractors of women’s ordination mainly cite one of two reasons.

“The first reason is based on the fact the Jesus Christ and his apsotles were male, which means that priesthood should be reserved for men. The second reason is not religious, but is rather based in social traditions and biological considerations,” he said. In response to how this contradicts with Virgin Mary’s status, Massouh said that many Christians believe that despite this status she was never made priest or the like, which means priesthood is not for women. “The discourse of Eastern Christianity will never progress as long as these ideas are still treated as givens.”

Before her ordination, Sleiman was performing all the duties of a pastor with the exception baptism and communion: “My duties focused on Sunday sermons and pastoral care visits until the 24-member Synod decided it was time to vote for ordaining me and I got 23 votes,” she said in an interview.

“This decision was supported by members of the church.” Sleiman noted that members of her church are a minority among Christians in Lebanon. “Protestants are 10,000 out of Lebanon’s 4 million and are mainly concentrated in the Mount Lebanon Governorate,” she explained. “The first protestant presence in Lebanon started with the Quakers in 1873 then the number of churches increased to reach 24.”

Sleiman said that people in her hometown seem skeptical about her ability to carry out the duties of a pastor. “I can see this in the way they treat and look at me because this is new to them,” she said. “This is despite the fact that when I was performing the duties of a pastor informally they were okay with it.” Sleiman said she believed that because Tripoli is her hometown and all members of the church already know her, they will gradually get used to it. “Women in the West proved that they can be as good as men in priesthood, but in the Arab world only traditions are the main barrier that can be overcome by one first precedent like this and there is always a first time.”

Is ISIS importing Iraq-style sectarian tactics inside Egypt?

In February, more than 100 Christian families fled the city of Arish in northern Sinai to the Suez Canal city of Ismailia following a series of attacks that killed seven, including a young man who was burnt alive after his father was shot in front of him.

These attacks were not the first in the city, but were seen as the most serious, especially with ISIS posting a video threatening to eliminate the Christian community and labeling Egyptian Christians “infidels” who collaborate with the West against Islam. Although Christians have been trickling out of Arish when ISIS first took hold of the city, this is the first mass migration.

The decision to relocate the Christians of Arish, at times referred to as “forced evacuation,” was met with indignation by many for it was seen as proof of the government’s inability to protect the Christian community.

The attacks were also considered a desperate attempt by a defeated ISIS that sustained major losses at the hands of the Egyptian military. Some even wondered if the attacks really targeted Christians or only used them as a weak link to regain control over the Sinai Peninsula.

However, the Palm Sunday twin bombings, which killed more than 44 people and injured more than a hundred, proved beyond doubt that one, ISIS is as powerful as ever if not more and that they can and operate outside their hideouts in Sinai; and two, Egyptian Christians are becoming much more than the object of a random vengeance spree.

Mokhtar Awad, research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, argues that targeting Christians in Egypt seems to coincide with the sectarian approach ISIS has adopted since its inception. “For months, the Islamic State has been accelerating the import of Iraq-style sectarian tactics to Egypt,” he wrote.

“In doing so, the group hopes to destabilize the Middle East’s most populous country and expand the reach of it’s by now clearly genocidal project for the region’s minorities.”

For Awad, ISIS is obviously placing Egyptian Christians in the same position as Iraqi Shiites, which means “they can be killed indiscriminately and for no reason other than for what they believe.” This is seen by Awad as a radical step when taking into consideration Egypt’s size and the fact that the militant project has so far failed to gain ground in it.

Sectarian strife, he adds, is now ISIS’s way of infiltrating a society that is known for its “relative cohesiveness” as Awad puts it. “SIS hopes that inflaming sectarian strife in Egypt will be the first step in the country’s unraveling.”

Security expert General Mohamed Zaki said that the recent bombings demonstrate ISIS’s desire to inflict maximum pain upon the Christian community, thus increasing the impact of the operations. This, he explained, is done through the choice of time and place.

“They choose churches that have symbolic significance for Christians,” he said.

This particularly applies to St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, which stands in the site of the church built by Mark the Evangelist. He is the author of the second gospel who brought Christianity to Egypt and became founder of the church of Alexandria and the first Bishop of Alexandria and is one of Christianity’s most revered martyrs.

“They also choose special days for Christians as was the case with Palm Sunday,” Zaki added.

Those two factors upon which terrorists base their choice, Zaki added, lead to a major third factor – casualties.