Pope Francis to visit Egypt in April as dialogue improves

Pope Francis walks toward a confessional box during a penitential liturgy in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, March 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, Pool)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis will visit Egypt in late April, reflecting improved Vatican-Muslim dialogue after years of tension that developed during the previous papacy of Benedict XVI.

The Vatican said Saturday that details of the April 28-29 trip will be announced soon.

In Egypt, presidential spokesman Alaa Youssef said the visit to the majority Muslim nation comes in response to an invitation from President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who met Francis when he visited the Vatican in late 2014.

The Vatican said the pope was going also upon invitations from Catholic bishops in Egypt, Coptic Orthodox church leader Pope Tawadros II and the grand imam of the Al-Azhar mosque, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib.

In May 2016, the imam came to the Vatican, where the pope embraced him. That meeting was seen as reopening an important channel for Catholic-Muslim dialogue after Al-Azhar had frozen relations with the Vatican. The freeze was triggered by demands by Benedict in 2011 for greater protection of Christians in Egypt following a New Year's Day bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria that killed 21 people.

Youssef said that during his visit Francis will meet with el-Sissi as well as with the imam, who is Egypt's top Muslim cleric, and with Tawadros. He said Egypt hopes the visit will cement the "spirit of tolerance and dialogue" among followers of different faiths and further isolate extremism and terrorism.

Last month, the Vatican's point man on Muslim relations, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, participated in a conference at Al-Azhar focused on how Muslim and Catholic leaders can work to counter fanaticism, extremism and violence in the name of religion.

Al-Azhar's grand imam has a reputation as a moderate who seeks better relations and understanding with the Roman Catholic Church. He frequently meets with Tawadros and leaders of the smaller Egyptian church denominations.

Pope Francis has stressed working for reconciliation and overcoming divisions among all peoples as urgent goals of his four-year-old papacy.

In contrast, Vatican relations with much of the Muslim world suffered early in Benedict's papacy, when, during a speech in 2006 in his native Germany, he spoke about Islam's relation to violence.

Most of Egypt's Christians are members of the Orthodox church led by Tawadros. Christians overall are believed to account for about 10 percent of the country's 92 million people.

Christians often complain of discrimination, citing their apparent exclusion from top positions in the security services, academia and the diplomatic service.

Since his election in 2014, El-Sissi has sought to reassure Egypt's Christians, promising them equality and protection.

But a series of brutal killings of Christians recently in northern Sinai claimed by a local affiliate of the Islamic State has forced hundreds of Christians to flee the area in search of safety elsewhere in Egypt.

The IS group also claimed a suicide bombing in December that targeted a packed Orthodox church in the heart of Cairo, killing about 30, mostly women, during a morning service.

___

Hendawi reported from Cairo.

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