On April 28th, many around the world watched in anticipation as Pope Francis traveled to Cairo, Egypt only a few short weeks after terrorists killed dozens of Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday. Many of those watching, and in particular the Coptic community, wondered if Pope Francis would take after his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who in a New Year’s speech in 2011 acknowledged the persecution of the Coptic community in Egypt and strongly admonished those in leadership, both religious and secular, for not doing more to protect them. In his 2011 speech, Pope Benedict XVI stated,
“…to the Muslim religious leaders, I renew my heartfelt appeal that their Christian fellow-citizens be able to live in security ... In Alexandria, terrorism brutally struck Christians as they prayed in church. This succession of attacks is yet another sign of the urgent need for the governments of the region to adopt, in spite of difficulties and dangers, effective measures for the protection of religious minorities.” (Message to the People of God of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, 10).
On Friday, Pope Francis took a different approach in his condemnation of the most recent terror attacks when he stated, “… I express my deep condolences. I pray for the dead and the injured, and I am close in spirit to the family members [of the deceased and injured] and to the entire community … May the Lord convert the hearts of the people who are sowing terror, violence and death, and also the hearts of those who make and traffic weapons.”
Immediately following his visit, some religious freedom advocates expressed disappointment that Pope Francis did not come out more emphatically in his condemnation of the attacks which were committed in the name of Islam upon the Coptic community. Others wagered that he might have wanted to ensure that the window of opportunity to speak with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Mosque, remained open. During the conference with el-Tayeb at al-Azhar on Saturday, Pope Francis did state, "Let us say once more a firm and clear 'No!' to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God."
While it is difficult to say which Pope’s approach is more effective in the condemnation of persecution and human rights abuses and in the promotion of religious freedom, both are necessary and have their benefits. One could use the example of how the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the State Department’s International Religious Freedom (IRF) Office often function. USCIRF is considered by many to be the hard-hitting “watchdog,” publicly calling out authoritarian governments for their egregious human rights abuses and exposing the inconsistencies of what is said versus what is done. On the other hand, the IRF Office, which focuses on the exact same issues as that of the Commission, will often utilize a form of “quiet diplomacy,” in order to keep the door open for further conversation and diplomatic intervention on behalf of those being persecuted. Often those on the outside can be frustrated by the seeming lack of urgency, attention and transparency of the IRF Office, while singing the praises of the more outspoken USCIRF. However, when asked, those in these separate offices would be quick to say that both are necessary and serve a distinct purpose.
While Pope Benedict and Pope Francis condemned the terrorist attacks differently, we can be sure that both advocate for those who face persecution in Egypt and around the world.
Director of Government Relations
1. Learn more about the plight of Egypt’s Coptic Church by checking out Coptic Solidarity(copticsolidarity.org)
2. Read USCIRF’s report released last week about the state of religious freedom in Egypt.
3. Donate to Stephen’s Children (stephenschildren.org), which provides education, training and other need-based humanitarian aid to Egypt’s poorest.
(c) 2017 Wilberforce