The Pope faces a situation on the ground far different from the view of Islam as a religion of peace that he has repeated ad nauseum:
Pope Francis is facing a religious and diplomatic balancing act as he heads to Egypt this weekend, hoping to comfort its Christian community after a spate of Islamic attacks while seeking to improve relations with Egypt’s Muslim leaders.
Security has been tightened, with shops ordered closed and police conducting door-to-door checks in the upscale Cairo neighborhood where Francis will stay Friday night. His only public Mass is being held at a military-run stadium.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said Francis wasn’t overly concerned and wouldn’t use an armored car, as his predecessors did on foreign trips. Francis insisted on going ahead with the trip even after twin Palm Sunday church bombings killed at least 45 people and a subsequent attack at the famed St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai.
“We’re in the world of ‘new normal,'” Burke said. “But we go forward with serenity.”
The highlight of the two-day trip will be Francis’ visit Friday to Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of learning in Sunni Islam. There, he will meet privately with grand imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, and participate in an international peace conference.
Francis has insisted that Christian-Muslim dialogue is the only way to overcome Islamic extremism of the kind that has targeted Christians and driven them from their 2,000-year-old communities in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. While condemning extremist attacks against Christians, he has said he is traveling to Egypt as a messenger of peace at a time when the world is “torn by blind violence.”
But his message of dialogue and tolerance has been rejected as naive by even some of his fellow Jesuits, for whom Islam remains “a religion of the sword” that has failed to modernize. Even ordinary Egyptian Christians see his visit as a nice gesture but one that ultimately won’t change their reality.
“He has been saying the same words for years, which is all about love and tolerance, but political Islam ruined the world and the most important change should come from Al-Azhar,” said John, a 24-year-old Coptic Christian student from Cairo who declined to give his last name because he feared reprisals.