Pope Francis’ trip to Egypt at the end of April, the 18th overseas trip of his pontificate, began under a cloud of violence and fear due to the Palm Sunday bombings of two Coptic Orthodox churches in the country three weeks earlier. The bombings naturally raised questions about the pope’s safety, and Vatican spokesman Greg Burke acknowledged these concerns. Tight security, he added, is a “new normal.” And so the pope characteristically pressed on with his visit, and in doing so, his trip to Egypt spoke volumes about how followers of Christ are called to respond to violence.
In visiting with Coptic Christians and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II just three weeks following the bombings that killed nearly 50 faithful and injured more than 100 others, Pope Francis was present with people in their mourning and suffering, but he also took the opportunity to build bridges of unity through the encounter. He signed a joint agreement with Pope Tawadros that each Church would recognize the other’s baptism, a significant move as the Coptic Orthodox had previously required new members, including baptized Catholics, to be baptized again.
Pope Francis didn’t limit his bridge-building to other Christians. In his visit to al-Azhar University in Cairo, he dialogued with the country’s Sunni Muslim religious leaders, addressing root causes of the societal ills that led to the Palm Sunday attacks. In particular, he addressed the responsibility of all religious leaders to take the lead in stopping people from engaging in violence in the name of religion.
“As religious leaders, we are called, therefore, to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the ‘absolutizing’ of selfishness than on authentic openness to the Absolute,” he said. “We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God.”
He noted that “it is of little or no use to raise our voices and run about to find weapons for our protection: What is needed today are peacemakers, not makers of arms; what is needed are peacemakers and not fomenters of conflict; firefighters and not arsonists; preachers of reconciliation and not instigators of destruction.”
On the return flight to Rome, Pope Francis looked beyond violence in Egypt to the growing signs of conflict between the United States and North Korea. “I always call (for) resolving problems through the diplomatic path, negotiations,” because the future of humanity depends on it, the pope said.
In Pope Francis’ brief visit to Egypt, we saw him once again model with his actions what he so often tries to teach with his words. His response to violence is not to flee, or even stay away, but to draw nearer to those affected, engage them lovingly and invite all people, especially those from different backgrounds, into respectful dialogue and encounter with one another — all with an intentional focus toward preventing future violence.
Francis knows this is the path to lasting peace — a path that would engender great potential if more Christians, as well as believers of other religious traditions, joined him. As the pope noted in his recent TED Talk, “Hope began with one ‘you.’ When there is an ‘us,’ there begins a revolution.” We can all pray and model with our hearts and actions the hope that this becomes another “new normal.”
Editorial Board: Greg Willits, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor-in-chief; Don Clemmer, managing editor