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Pope in Egypt stresses dialogue

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Cairo, Egypt

Following in the steps of countless pilgrims, Pope John Paul came to the foot of Mount Sinai to pray at the site where Moses is believed to have received the 10 Commandments. His visit to the 6th-century St. Catherine’s Monastery marked the culminating moment of his Feb. 24-26 visit to Egypt, and the first step of his longed-for Jubilee pilgrimage to “some of the places which are closely linked to the Incarnation of the Word of God, the events which the Holy Year of 2000 directly recalls.”

John Paul had hoped to begin this pilgrimage to the biblical sites in Ur of the Chaldees -- modern day Tell el-Muqayyar in southern Iraq -- to commemorate the life of Abraham, “our father in faith.” Due to political instability and security concerns, the visit has so far proved impossible, and the pope had to settle for a creatively choreographed Liturgy of the Word -- a virtual voyage with video footage of the sacred sites -- in the Vatican on the eve of his departure for Cairo.

On his arrival in the Egyptian capital, the pope called for greater justice and peace in the region and condemned all forms of violence carried out in the name of religion. Amidst a massive security presence, the pope was welcomed by President Hosni Mubarak, whom the pontiff praised for his efforts at promoting dialogue between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

Also on hand at the airport was the leader of Egypt’s majority Sunni Moslem population, Sheik Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, whom the pope later called on during a private visit to the prestigious Al-Azhar University. Founded in the 10th century, the university comprises an impressive mosque, a maze of faculty buildings, as well as the sheik’s residence where the pope addressed a gathering of Moslem scholars and professors. He told them he believed the future of humanity depended on the dialogue between different cultures and religions.

Quoting from the Koran, Sheik Tantawi said followers of the three monotheistic religions are called on to stand up for human rights, and he thanked the pope for his personal support of the Palestinian people.

The other main focus of the visit was the delicate and complex relationship between the Catholic church and different Orthodox communities present in this part of the world. In Egypt, the Catholic population numbers less than half a percent of the population, divided into followers of seven different liturgical rites. The Coptic Orthodox church claims up to 8 million members -- over 10 percent of the population -- though govenment estimates put the figure as low as 4 million. The church is under the guidance of Patriarch Shenouda III.

The pope of Alexandria, as he’s known here, is a scholarly and charismatic leader who was kept under virtual house arrest for three years by President Anwar Sadat, anxious to curb a wave of anti-Christian violence by Moslem extremists in the early ’80s. A decade earlier, Shenouda came to pay a visit to Pope Paul VI in the Vatican and to sign a common Christological declaration, despite resistance from within his own hierarchy. It marked the first meeting between a Roman pontiff and a Coptic Orthodox leader since the great schism of 451 A.D.

Inside the newly consecrated Catholic Cathedral of our Lady of Egypt, with its neon cross outside and modern murals inside, the two popes attended an ecumenical prayer service alongside leaders of Egypt’s Protestant and Evangelical communities. To the sounds of ancient Coptic chants, Pope John Paul invited all Christian leaders to engage in “a patient and fraternal dialogue,” leaving what he termed “useless controversies” behind.

John Paul added that on the thorny subject of papal primacy, pastors and theologians must “seek together the forms in which this ministry may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned.”

For the 250,000-strong Catholic community in Egypt, the high point of the visit was a Mass on Friday -- the Moslem holy day -- celebrated for the first time in a huge indoor sports stadium. A Jesuit priest who helped organize the event said the Mass marked a kind of “rebirth” for the Catholic church in Egypt, a moment of new awareness of ancient spiritual traditions.

From a media perspective, the culminating moment of the journey was the pope’s visit to St. Catherine’s monastery on the windswept Sinai peninsula. There he did as the Lord commanded -- he “took off his shoes” to kneel in prayer at the place where Moses first heard God calling to him and revealing his name: Yaweh or I am who I am. A tiny chapel contains what are believed to be the original roots of the burning bush overlaid in silver under the altar where the monks still celebrate Mass every Saturday.

Followed by a crush of journalists and well-wishers, the pope walked past the small mosque that serves as a place of prayer for the local bedouin people who have been the guardians of this monastery since the Islamic conquest of the area in the 7th century.

Then sitting in the bright sunshine below the rugged peaks of Mount Sinai, John Paul listened again to the words of the 10 Commandments. “Today as always,” the pope said, “these 10 words of the Law provide the only true basis for the lives of individuals, societies and nations.” They remain “the future of the human family” saving mankind from “the destructive force of egoism, hatred and falsehood.”

Returning to the problem of ecumenical and interreligious divisions, the pope said the wind that still blows across the Sinai today carries with it an insistent invitation to dialogue between followers of the great monotheistic religions. For the time being, that invitation is being treated with caution: The pope had to abandon plans to bring Moslem, Jewish and Christian leaders with him to Mount Sinai. And even the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Damianos, who welcomed Pope John Paul to St. Catherine’s Monastery, abandoned the prayer service in the Garden of Olives. He said it was not possible to pray together because there is no ecclesiastical communion.

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2000