It seems clear by now that Pope Francis will visit Egypt this year. The Vatican has confirmed that a trip is in the works, though not the dates of May 20-21 reported by Italy’s state-run television service RAI.
The main focus doubtless will be the budding efforts by the Vatican and Al-Azahar, the leading center for learning in Sunni Islam, to join forces in delegitimizing religious pretexts for violence. That’s obviously a worthy and timely cause, and it alone would justify the outing.
There will also be a strong ecumenical component, since Egypt is home to the Coptic Orthodox Church, representing around ten percent of the national population with roughly 20 million followers, the largest Christian community in the Middle East.
(All by itself, the fact that two Christian leaders who both carry the title of “pope,” Francis and Pope Tawadros II, will be in the same room, provides some good color.)
Yet there’s another compelling reason for Francis to go to Egypt, though it remains to be seen how much emphasis it actually will get: To make a stand in defense of persecuted Christians.
Despite the transition in Egypt in 2014 to a new government led by former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power vowing to protect minorities and reject terrorism, human rights experts say that assaults on Christians in the country are a chronic problem that’s getting worse. A recent wave of anti-Christian attacks in the country’s Sinai region offer merely the latest example.