Pope Francis is hoping to revive Muslim-Christian dialogue and show solidarity with the Coptic community during a visit to Cairo. The Egyptian government is using the trip to polish its image. Martin Gehlen reports.
For the first time in their lives last Sunday, they sat in the front three pews of the small Protestant church in Cairo's busy Galaa Street. Each of the 14 students clutched a German hymnal, casting curious glances around the ocher-yellow nave while German priest Stefan El Karsheh explained the meaning of the baptismal font and the altar to his guests.
First time in a church
In Germany, it's become common for mosques to hold open days or for Christians and Muslims to hold meetings in the interests of interfaith dialogue. But in Egypt, it's an absolute novelty. Only 10 percent of the country's 93 million people are Christian, the other 90 percent are Muslim.
Abdelwakeed Abou Rehab belongs to the Muslim majority. But the 23-year-old grew up among Christians. His parents' house in the city of Sohag, which lies on the Nile river some 250 miles (400 kilometers) south of the capital, is the only Muslim household in a street lined otherwise by the homes of Coptic Christians. At school, he was introduced to the Bible as well as a thick book about Jesus written by a German theologian. But until now, he had never set foot inside a church.
The same goes for Mahmoud Salem. In the roundtable discussion that followed the church visit, he told the German parishioners how deeply the hymns, the organ music and the prayers moved him. "Before, I just had a few random phrases from the Bible in my head. I didn't realize that you could live the Christian faith so intensely," said Salem, who grew up in the northern part of Cairo.
These are the kinds of contacts Pope Francis is hoping to make as he appeals for better relations between Muslims and Christians. His two-day visit to Cairo starts on Friday with a meeting of the heads of Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam's oldest and most prestigious scholarly institute. For its Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the visitor from Rome is "a person who has deep respect for other faiths in his heart."
Praying for Christians
But the pope's visit comes at a turbulent time. Never before have violent Islamists so systematically smeared their religion's reputation. Never before has the existence and survival of the Christian minority in the region been as threatened as it is today. In Cairo, Tanta and Alexandria, suicide bombers killed dozens of people in a series of attacks targeting Coptic churches. Pope Francis plans to visit the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul together with Coptic Pope Tawadros II to pray for the 29 Christians who were killed in a bombing in December 2016, shortly before Christmas.
However, many Christians living in Egypt have little confidence that closer contact between Al-Azhar and the Vatican will improve their relations with the Muslim majority. "This is just a formal meeting - no more and no less," said Coptic writer and political analyst Kamal Zakher. He doesn't expect any tangible results from the meeting. In his view, Al-Azhar should first do a thorough overhaul of its religious discourse before beginning dialogue with other faiths.
But Cairo-based members of the Jesuit order - the same order as Pope Francis - see things more positively. Jesuit Bimal Kerketta, for example, says Francis' visit is a good sign because he is reviving contact with the Islamic faith. "But when it comes to the daily matter of how we get along with each other, we still have a long, difficult road before us."
Seeking a peaceful coexistence
Cairo security authorities are on high alert this week due to the terror threat. Despite this, the unorthodox pope is shunning the bulletproof popemobile when he drives through the Egyptian capital. "It makes me feel like I'm in a sardine can," the 80-year-old once said, adding that the vehicle prevents him from having contact with ordinary people.
The highlight of his visit will be an open-air mass on Saturday at a stadium on a military base in the city outskirts. "The pope of peace in the Egypt of peace" is the official motto of his trip. The logo shows a waving Francis with a peace dove in front of the Nile, the pyramids, and the Sphinx. A cross and a crescent moon adorn the center, to symbolize hope for the peaceful coexistence of Christianity and Islam - as embodied by the decision of the 14 Al-Azhar students who attended mass last Sunday with the German congregation. They say the conditions in Egypt are contributing to the radicalization of Muslims. It's easy to indoctrinate would-be violent Islamists, they say, because there is no freedom of opinion in Egypt, and no way to have an open discussion with such people and convince them not to radicalize.
The students' host, Pastor Stefan El Karsheh, is standing outside the church, back in the harsh reality. After the suicide bombings in Tanta and Alexandria on Palm Sunday, the Egyptian police now want to install two security cameras above the entrance to the German church.