Although Pope Francis’s April 28-29 trip to Egypt will be extremely brief, barely more than 24 hours in the country, it’s among the riskiest outings of his papacy. On multiple fronts, from security and politics to Christian/Muslim relations and ecumenism, Francis faces hard choices on the trip that amount to striking the right balance between equally undesirable outcomes.
Though Pope Francis will only be in Egypt this weekend for a little over 24 hours, the brief trip to the world’s sixth largest Muslim nation, and the biggest in the Middle East, nevertheless shapes up as one of the most complicated and riskiest of his papacy.
From security concerns to the labyrinthian politics awaiting him, Francis will face hard choices in Cairo from the moment he lands, at roughly 8:00 a.m. Eastern time on Friday until he leaves to return to Rome at 11:00 a.m. Eastern on Saturday.
Although the aims of the trip may be relatively straight-forward, the path to achieving them seems far less clear.
While every papal outing generates concerns about the pontiff’s safety, that’s especially true for the April 28-29 visit to Egypt, which unfolds in the wake of the bombing of two Coptic Orthodox churches on Palm Sunday, one in the Nile Delta city of Tanta and the other in Alexandria, that left 45 people. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for those attacks.
Last week, Islamic State gunmen also attacked security forces at a checkpoint near the famous St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai desert, killing a police officer and injuring three others.
As they always do, Vatican spokesmen are playing down any risks during the trip, expressing confidence in the local security forces.
“Security is an issue everywhere, not just in Egypt,” Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said this week. “Are we worried? I wouldn’t use the word ‘worry’. The security measures are similar to many trips. The Egyptians obviously want everything to go well.”
The risk may actually be less for Francis himself and more for Egypt’s Christian minority, which ranges somewhere between 10 and 20 million people, depending on which demographic estimates one accepts. It’s the largest Christian community in the Middle East, largely composed of members of the Coptic Orthodox Church led by Pope Tawadros II.
Not only are Christians in Egypt a frequent target of Islamic militants for the mere fact of being a religious minority, but politically they’re seen a solidly aligned behind the government of former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power in 2014 after the ouster of a Muslim Brotherhood-led government under Mohammed Morsi.
Supporters of al-Sisi recall that transition as the “June 30 revolution,” celebrating it as an expression of popular will, while adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood see it as a coup which led to the resumption of rule by the same military and political establishment that’s dominated Egypt since the era of Nasser.
The net result is that Christians are frequently at risk because of political as well as cultural or religious resentments. Many observers in Egypt fear that while Pope Francis is in the country, Christian sites and individuals may be at heightened risk from forces calculating that they may not be able to strike at the pontiff himself, but can reach other less well-defended targets.
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