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Pope Francis brings message of peace to Egypt as Christians face violence

April 28, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: It is the first papal trip to Egypt since Pope John Paul II in 2000. Pope Francis’ visit to Cairo today comes at a time when Egypt’s Christians are under attack, and the so-called Islamic State is emboldened.

Hari Sreenivasan has our story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Pope Francis received a red carpet welcome, but security was on high alert across the Egyptian capital. Still, he insisted on driving to the presidential palace in a simple unarmored blue Fiat.

WOMAN: He is trying to prove to the world that Egypt is still safe, no matter what terrorism is trying to do in our country.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Just three weeks ago, 45 people died when the Islamic State bombed Christian churches in two Egyptian cities on Palm Sunday. And, in December, an ISIS suicide bomber killed 25 people at Cairo’s main Coptic Christian cathedral.

In a video message before his arrival, Francis called for unity and tolerance.

POPE FRANCIS, Leader of Catholic Church (through interpreter): I hope that this visit will be an embrace of consolation and of encouragement to all Christians in the Middle East, a message of fraternity and reconciliation to all children of Abraham, particularly in the Islamic world.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The pontiff’s first stop was a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. The former general came to power after a 2013 coup that ousted Mohammed Morsi and banned the Muslim Brotherhood. Francis also took part in a peace conference to bring Muslims and Christians together.

POPE FRANCIS (through interpreter): To counter effectively the barbarity of those who foment hatred and violence, we need to accompany young people, respond to the incendiary logic of evil by patiently working for the growth of goodness.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The day concluded with a meeting with the leader of Egypt’s Coptic Christians.

For more on what these leaders hope to achieve together, I’m joined by Tarek Masoud, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Now, Mr. Masoud, let’s start with this recent violence that we have been seeing against Coptic Christians. Is this something new or is this something that Christians in Egypt have had to deal with forever?

TAREK MASOUD, Harvard University: Hi, Hari.

I think it’s the latter. It’s something that has really plagued the Christian community in Egypt for a very long time. Under Hosni Mubarak, the president who was overthrown in 2011, there had been violence against Christians. When the military took over in Egypt in 2011, there was violence against Christians. When the Muslim Brotherhood was in charge for a brief moment in Egypt, there was violence against Christians.

And that violence against Christians in Egypt continues today under the government of Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Just to put it in a little context, what’s the standing of Christians in society, or how much does it matter?

TAREK MASOUD: Oh, it matters a great deal.

You know, Hari, the word for — most Egyptian Christians are called Coptic Christians. And the word Copt has the same etymological root as the word Egypt. In fact, Copt — the Coptic Church is the world’s oldest Christian church.

And the Coptic Christians are indigenous to Egypt. I’m a Muslim, but I’m clearly descended from people who converted from Christianity around the 11th century. So Christians are really an inextricable part of the fabric of Egyptian life.

The problem is, particularly since the 1970s, that society has become increasingly Islamized, that Christians have been seen as the other, and there have been a lot of attempts to delegitimize them, discriminate against them. And now we’re seeing acts of violence against them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what’s the strategic value for ISIS to carry out these acts of violence against this small minority?

TAREK MASOUD: Well, so Christians in Egypt are between 5 and 15 percent of the Egyptian population.

So, the fact that we don’t know how much of the population they are is in itself a problem. But what ISIS wants to do by attacking Christians and Christian churches is two things. First, they want to delegitimize the Egyptian regime.

After all, President Sisi came to power promising stability. And so these kinds of spectacular acts of violence merely underscore his inability to provide that stability.

The other thing they want to do is, they want to paint the government as somehow not just non-Islamic, but anti-Islamic. So, when they attack Christians, and the government, as it should, does things to defend the Christian community, such as putting armed guards around churches or the president making statements about how the government — the people should — there should be no discrimination against Copts and no violence against Copts, it makes it possible for Islamic radicals to point to the government and say to Egyptians, look at these guys, they’re on the side of Christians, they care more about Christians than they do about the average Muslim Egyptian.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, is it part of a larger strategy for ISIS then in the region?

TAREK MASOUD: It may be.

Clearly, everywhere that ISIS operates, they try to polarize societies, foment sectarian and religious dissension. The other thing to note, though, again that the problem of violence and discrimination with Copts in Egypt far predates ISIS and far predates the government of President Sisi.

And it’s not just a reflection of ISIS strategy. It’s a reflection of deep dysfunctions in Egyptian society.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally, I want to ask about this image that is circulating today. It is of the pope embracing an imam there in Egypt. It almost seems like there’s a marketing challenge.

Will an image like that travel as far and as fast as some of these ISIS videos make it throughout the Muslim world?

TAREK MASOUD: One really hopes so.

One thing that’s really been remarkable about Pope Francis is that he really isn’t just the pope of the world’s Catholics. He really seems to be the pope of all peoples, and particularly the world’s downtrodden and disadvantaged.

And I think one thing that’s worth noting is that, in his statement, the pope called on the Egyptian government to do more to respect human rights. And he wasn’t just talking about the human rights of Egypt’s Christians, but he was talking about the human rights of all Egyptians.

So, one hopes that those kinds of messages will diffuse throughout the Muslim world.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Tarek Masoud from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, thanks so much.

TAREK MASOUD: Thank you, Hari.

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