CAIRO — Pope Tawadros II had planned to spend last week on retreat in a monastery near Alexandria. But then Mohammed bin Salman, on a three-day visit to Egypt, asked to see him.
The Saudi crown prince and the Coptic Christian patriarch met at St. Mark’s Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo. They reportedly discussed the bloodshed and destruction afflicting so much of the Middle East, and why promoting tolerance has become imperative.
The crown prince allowed his photograph to be taken with the pontiff. In it, the two men are chatting amicably in front of a painting of Jesus, a halo around his head, lambs at his feet. Egyptian media called the meeting “unprecedented.”
Since he had to be in town anyway, Pope Tawadros agreed to meet with me and Fr. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, in our capacity as commissioners of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, federal entity that advises Congress, the State Department and the president. (Opinions in this column are not necessarily shared by USCIRF.)
His Holiness began by asking if we knew how many Coptic Orthodox popes there have been. Luckily, I did: He is the 118th since the Holy See of Saint Mark was established 2,000 years ago.
I think he wanted to be sure we understood how deeply the church’s roots extend into Egyptian soil, and why Egypt’s 9 million Copts — the largest Christian community still surviving in the Middle East — deserve protection.
In 2012, he reminded us, Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, was elected Egypt’s president. What the pontiff called a “bloody period” ensued. Just over a year later, came “the June 30 Revolution,” a day of mass demonstrations against Mr. Morsi and Brotherhood rule.
Soon after, the military seized power and Army Field Marshall Abdel Fattah el-Sisi assumed the presidency. He has since called for Islamic reform and modernization. He has implored Egyptian Muslims and Christians to unite as fellow citizens. He became the first Egyptian president ever to attend a Christmas Mass.
In America and Europe, however, human rights advocates and scholars will tell you, convincingly, that President Sisi has failed to adequately defend the Copts from terrorists. (One example: In this cathedral complex two years ago, an Islamic State jihadist blew himself up, killing 25 worshippers.) Nor, they contend, has he done nearly enough to rebuild bombed and ransacked churches and clear hurdles so new churches can be built.
The pontiff disagreed with that assessment. He stressed that, “Since the June 30 Revolution, the situation has improved and continues to improve.” He pointed out that Copts have suffered persecution and discrimination for centuries, and no modern Egyptian leader has treated the Copts better than has Mr. Sisi. “We have good relations with the president,” he insisted. “Discrimination is decreasing — but slowly.”
He noted that Anwar Sadat “used to say: ‘I am the Muslim president of a Muslim nation,’ while Sisi says: ‘I am the Egyptian president of an Egyptian nation.’” He searched our faces to see if we understood the significance of that distinction.
He also praised Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al Azhar, the mosque and university widely considered the world’s highest authority in Sunni Islamic thought and jurisprudence. “He is a good friend for us,” he said.
A day later, Fr. Reese and I visit the grand imam. “Do you want diplomatic answers or shall I be candid?” he asks. “I can do either.”
We choose the latter. He offers beverages. “Have the coffee,” he advises. “It’s very good coffee.” I do, and find he has not misled me.
“There is mutual respect among Egypt’s religious leaders,” he tells us. “But that’s not always shared by the people.”
“Islam, Christianity, and Judaism — these religions were revealed for the benefit of the world. There are differences among them but their values, their principles are more or less the same. They come from one source. If Allah wanted to create all people of one religion, race or color, he could have.”
However, he says, particularly in impoverished rural areas, too many Egyptians don’t grasp these concepts, and are susceptible to the influence of “extreme Salafi organizations,” movements advocating fundamentalism and a return to Islam’s earliest traditions. Salafi jihadists, he points out, “attack mosques as well as churches.” He reminds us that just last November, terrorists killed more than 300 Sufis in their mosque in the Sinai.
I can’t characterize everything these clerics said as enlightened. When we broached the subject of discrimination against other Egyptian religious minorities, for example Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baha’i, the pontiff was unsympathetic.
“On the map this looks like a big country,” he said. “But we all live along the Nile, on just 8 percent of the land. It’s crowded. There’s no place for other denominations.”
The imam, for his part, insisted that al Qaeda was created “not with Arab hands but by foreign agents.”
He argued that the history of Islam has been misrepresented. “In the past, Muslims didn’t enter a country and force inhabitants to choose between conversion and death. There was another choice: to pay the jizya.” The jizya was a tax levied on non-Muslims, dhimmis, whose status ranged from second-class citizen to exploited and humiliated inferior.
Note, too, his use of “enter” as a euphemism for the invasions and military conquests that spread Islamic rule across North Africa, and into Europe and Asia. Yes, in antiquity, that was how all empires spread. But that’s my point: The great Islamic empires were no exception.
Nevertheless, I found these conversations mostly hopeful; glasses more or less half full. And in the Middle East these days, that seems to me worth reporting.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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