The Middle East is at a crossroads. Pope Francis' visit to Egypt April 28-29 is important, as the direction the country takes -- peace or continued volatility -- will greatly impact the entire region. If Egypt can become a model of stability through interfaith dialogue, reconciliation and a desire to work for the common good, it may very well be the road map to lasting peace in the Middle East.
The Holy Father knows this. It's why he is willing to risk his personal safety by visiting a country under a state of emergency following the Palm Sunday terrorist attacks as a "messenger of peace."
The highlight of Pope Francis' trip to Egypt will be a symbolic meeting with Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, whom some consider the highest authority in Sunni Islamic thought. Pope Francis will also meet with Coptic Orthodox leader, Pope Tawadros II, during a time of fear for most Christians -- on the heels of the church bombings that killed 44 people.
Egypt has the largest population of Christians in the Middle East -- approximately 9 million -- and this is the reason Daesh has increased attacks in recent months.
A youth sits next to a cross made of flowers at an April 10, 2017 candle-light vigil in solidarity with Egyptian Christians after attacks targeting two churches in Gaza City. (Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Radical Islam is growing in Egypt through groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. They do not want a pluralist and democratic Egypt. They want total control, with their end goal being to eradicate anyone who does not think like them -- Christians and Muslims alike. They want total control and even tried to establish an Islamist regime with the election of president Mohamed Morsi in 2012.
To counter this, the Egyptian Army, under the leadership of General (now president) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, took control to prevent a potential civil war. As Egyptian leaders like president al-Sisi, Pope Tawadros and Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb try to move the country forward, resistance to a more modern Egypt is strong and could plunge the country into a civil war.
This country with the largest Muslim population in the Middle East would send a strong signal if it succeeds.
Egypt is fragile. Right next door, Libya is fighting a civil war, while Syria is in its sixth year of civil war. If war breaks out in Egypt, it will spread to surrounding countries such as Israel, and then to the entire region and beyond. Egypt is crucial to create stability in the Middle East.
The Pope's trip to Egypt needs all the support it can get -- in order to illustrate that pluralism, openness, democratic values, respect for all its citizens and human rights are possible. This country with the largest Muslim population in the Middle East would send a strong signal if it succeeds. The Christians who have experienced institutionalized discrimination and many direct attacks over the years would feel like real citizens with equal rights.
Pope Francis. (Photo: Jeffrey Bruno/Aleteia)
Courage and integrity are needed to move Egypt in the right direction. Pope Francis, the Grand Imam and Pope Tawadros II are willing to put their lives at risk in order to counter the destructive forces around them. Hopefully these religious men will inspire political leaders to do the same for the good of society.
One great Egyptian president working for the common good was Anwar El-Sadat, who was killed in 1981 by his guard for signing a peace agreement with Israel. Before he was murdered, he said: "Peace is much more precious than a piece of land... let there be no more wars." The pay-off was the stability that followed.
In the current climate, Egypt could implode as society is once again divided. Let's hope that the Pope's visit will inspire people in Egypt and in the Middle East to understand that peace is the only path forward.
(Hétu is the Canadian National Director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.)
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog suggested Syria is facing the possibility of civil war. The country is in its sixth year of civil war.
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