February 28, 2000
volume 11, no. 41
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"JUBILEE JOURNEY" TO EGYPT     Acknowledgments
Articles provided through Catholic World News and Church News at Noticias Eclesiales and International Dossiers, Daily Dispatches and Features at ZENIT International News Agency. CWN, NE and ZENIT are not affiliated with the Daily CATHOLIC but provide this service via e-mail to the Daily CATHOLIC Monday through Friday.

For more on the Holy Father's "Jubilee Journey" to Egypt, see EGYPT: DAY TWO and EGYPT: DAY THREE


Christian Minority: Direct Descendants of Pharaohs

    VATICAN CITY, FEB 22 (ZENIT).- Despite its claims, France is not the "first-born daughter of the Church." Historically, this claim actually belongs to Egypt, the first Christian country in history.

    The expression "first-born daughter of the Church," was used because the Gauls were the first nation to convert to Christianity in 495, when King Clovis and 30,000 of his warriors embraced the faith. However, a century earlier, Christianity was already the religion of Egypt -- 99.9% of Egyptians converted easily, in spite of the terrible mass martyrdoms that Christians suffered during emperor Diocletian's reign.

    Given this reality, when John Paul II travels to Egypt this Thursday -- where he will visit Cairo and Mount Sinai, where God revealed his name to Moses: "I am Who am," the Pope will not be arriving in a country where Christians are foreigners. On the contrary, Egyptian Christians are the authentic descendants of the pharaohs. Indeed, the name "Copts," as Christians are known in this land, designates the way in which Arabs refer to Egyptians: "Qubt," a contraction of the Greek "Aigyptos."

Origin of Monasticism

    The Church in Alexandria was founded by the evangelist St. Mark around the year 40. At the end of the 1st century, 20% of the Egyptian population was Christian. By the 2nd century, they constituted 45% of the population, and included distinguished intellectuals like St. Clement and Origen, who were leaders of the Alexandrian theological school. Several edicts were published during the 3rd century, banning Christianity from the land. From 303 to 305, Diocletian organized a bloody persecution that ended in thousands of martyrdoms. The Coptic calendar dates its first year as 284, when Diocletian came to power.

    As usually happens, the blood of martyrs became the seed of new Christians. During the 4th century, Egypt became the land that witnessed the birth of the first Christian monks in history. The cradle of the hermitic life was the Egyptian desert of the 3rd century. According to St. Jerome's writings, Paul of Thebes -- known as Paul the Hermit, was the founder of the hermitic way of life. The first hermit on whom there is considerable information was St. Anthony of the Desert (250-356), whose biography, "Vita Antonii," was written by St. Athanasius, a text which in no time became a primer of monasticism and spirituality, and had much influence on the Fathers of the Church, including St. Augustine, and contributed to the growth of monasticism.

    After Christians suffered great upheavals, especially in 389, Theodosius promulgated an edict in 392, which made Christianity the state religion and closed pagan temples.

    In 451, following the Council of Chalcedon, the Church in Alexandria was divided. This date marks the birth of the Coptic Monophysite Church -- to which the majority of Egyptian Christians belong. A minority -- the "Chalcedonites" remained faithful to Rome. Today's Coptic Orthodox, the heirs of this split, explain that they never actually held the Monophysite heresy (that Christ had no human nature -- only divine). Instead, they held (and hold) that the human and divine natures of Christ combined to form one "Christ nature."

    The Arab-Muslim conquest of Egypt, which took place between 639 and 642, found Christians divided into 3 million Copts and 200,000 Chalcedonites. Since then, there has been a very complex coexistence between Muslims and Christians. Between 829 and 831, several monasteries were destroyed because of Christians' dissatisfaction with tax regulations. The Fatimid dynasty of the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries included several Christian Ministers, although the reign of Caliph al-Hakim (996-1021) was darkened by the destruction of churches. The year 1219 is of special interest, because it records St. Francis of Assisi's meeting with Sultan Ayubida al-Kamel.

    Christians did not enjoy juridical and fiscal equality until 1866. And in 1908 -- for the first time in history -- a Copt was head of government. Christians were marginalized once again following Nasser's revolution; he imposed a unified program of religious teaching in all schools. Since 1992 the Egyptian Muslim fundamentalists have carried out repeated bloody attacks against the Christian community.

    At present, official statistics tend to minimize the number of Christians. The 1986 census recorded a total of 3.3 million, but the local churches, which base their information on baptismal records, report a figure closer to 10 million faithful. In part the difference is due to the fact that in Egypt there is a large number of crypto-Christians -- faithful who because of social pressures, declare themselves Muslims. Today Christians probably number 6 million, or 10% of the 64 million inhabitants. This means that one out of every two Eastern Christians has Egyptian nationality.

    In a country where Islam is the state religion, Copts have difficulty in obtaining key positions in society. Rarely are Copts found in important political posts. Over recent years, the Coptic Churches have tenaciously opposed the government in this area, but the latter has been pressured by fundamentalists to adopt Islamic laws, including the amputation of hands for theft and the death penalty for apostasy of Islam.

    The geographic areas of Christian concentration are Upper Egypt (the southern part of the country), where the Christian population reaches 35%, as well as the outskirts of Cairo and Alexandria.

    At present the Coptic Orthodox Church embraces 93% of Egyptian Christians. Their leader is Pope Shenouda III, 117th successor of St. Mark, who was exiled to a monastery in 1981 by President Sadat, where he remained in "guarded liberty" until 1985. He has made a great effort to encourage the rebirth of Egyptian monasticism and favor ecumenical dialogue. He met Pope Paul VI in 1973.

    The Catholic Coptic Church is one of the smallest Catholic communities in the East. The patriarchy was born officially in 1895, although since 1741 Apostolic Vicars have succeeded one another to lead the few thousand Copts who have converted to Catholicism. Today the Church has some 200,000 faithful and, since 1986, is led by Patriarch Stephanos II Ghattas. Since 1959, the Brothers of St. Mark's Preaching -- of Dominican inspiration -- have played a special role, as has a Coptic branch of the Franciscans.

    In addition to these two Churches, Egypt has communities of Latin Catholics (150 male religious, including Jesuits, Salesians, and Christian Brothers, and 800 women, especially of the Combonian Congregation. The Greek-Catholic Church has some 9,000 members of Syrian, Lebanese, or Palestinian origin, and the Maronite Church includes faithful of Lebanese origin who arrived in Egypt in the 19th century because of the religious freedom the country enjoyed. ZE00022201

"To Promote Violence and Conflict in the Name of Religion is a Terrible Contradiction"

    VATICAN CITY, FEB 24 (ZENIT).- John Paul II began his visit to Egypt as a pilgrim in Moses' footsteps with a heartfelt appeal that "all the peoples of this unique area of the world will see their rights respected and their legitimate aspirations fulfilled."

    The Holy Father's words were preceded by sincere praise for the politics of this country, led by Hosni Mubarak, whom the Pope congratulated for his commitment to peace in this nation, as well as for his role in the promotion of peace in the Middle East.

    The first welcome of a Pope to Egypt was characterized by a denunciation of all forms of religious fundamentalism. "To do harm, to promote violence and conflict in the name of religion is a terrible contradiction and a great offence against God. But past and present history give us many examples of such a misuse of religion."

    Egypt, which is overwhelmingly Muslim, received the Bishop of Rome in a climate of festivity. He was welcomed at the airport by the highest civilian and religious authorities of the country. Among them was President Hosni Mubarak; the highest Muslim authority Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque and University, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi; Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria Shenouda III; and Coptic Catholic Patriarch Stephanos II Ghattas.

    The welcoming ceremony took place in Cairo's international airport, where the Pope's plane landed just after 2 p.m. local time. This visit broke with tradition a bit, because the official meeting with President Mubarak took place not in the presidential palace, but in the airport's presidential pavilion.

    This is Karol Wojtyla's second visit to Egypt. His first was in 1963, when he traveled to Cairo with a group of participants in Vatican Council II.

    "We must all work to strengthen the growing commitment to inter-religious dialogue, a great sign of hope for the peoples of the world," the Holy Father said as he began his fifth trip to an Arab country. He emphasized his words by recalling the tradition of peaceful coexistence among different religions for which Egypt is noted. "This is the land of a 5000-year old civilization known throughout the world for its monuments and for its knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. This is the land where different cultures met and mingled, making Egypt famous for its wisdom and learning."

    In this hinge between Africa and Asia, on the banks of the great river Nile, one of the most ancient civilizations of mankind was born and developed. Its history includes decisive stages in the story of salvation: the call of the chosen people out of slavery, the revelation of God's name, the gift of the Covenant and of the Law, and the Holy Family's flight. Moreover, 1000 years ago, the "advent of Islam brought splendors of art and learning that have had determining influence on the Arab world and Africa," the Holy Father said.

    In Egypt, differences "of religion were never barriers, but a form of mutual enrichment in the service of the one national community." In fact, the "people of Egypt have for centuries pursued the ideal of national unity." To stress this idea, the Pope quoted the words of Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III, who in the 80s was exiled by the regime in power: "'Egypt is not the native land in which we live, but the native land which lives in us.' "

    Christianity has also made a decisive contribution to this millenarian history. The Church of Alexandria, founded by the evangelist Mark, has generated great theologians, such as Clement, St. Athanasius, St. Cyril and Origen. The memory of St. Catherine is also very much alive. Egypt has also been marked by saints like Anthony and Pacomius, who made it "the birthplace of monasticism, which has played an essential part in preserving the spiritual and cultural traditions of the Church."

    Given the above, the Holy Father went on to say, "The unity and harmony of the nation are a precious value that all citizens should cherish, and which political and religious leaders must continually promote in justice and respect for the rights of all."

    "As-salám 'aláikum," John Paul II said in bidding farewell. "Peace be with you." And he added: "This is my greeting to you all. This is the prayer I offer up for Egypt and all her people. May the Most High God bless your land with harmony, peace and prosperity."

    In the afternoon, Pope John Paul II, the Successor of St. Peter, met with Pope Shenouda III, the Successor of St. Mark, first Bishop of Alexandria. The Pope's next visit was to the highest Sunni Muslim authority in the world, Imam Mohammed Sayed Tantawi of Al-Azhar. Tomorrow morning the Holy Father will preside at a Mass for Egyptian Catholics in Cairo's Sports Palace. In the afternoon, he will attend an ecumenical meeting in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Egypt. And finally on Saturday, one of his cherished dreams will come true: he will go to Sinai, visit St. Catherine's Monastery, where he will commemorate God's revelation of his name to Moses and the handing of the Ten Commandments. ZE00022404


    CAIRO ( - Egypt's leading Muslim religious leader said this week that he welcomes Pope John Paul II's visit to Egypt which begins on Thursday, calling the Pontiff a defender of peace, love, and morality.

    The Sheik of Al Azhar, Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, said: "The Pope is a man of intelligence and wisdom, who defends peace, love, and moral values and encourages the propagation of virtues." Tantawi is the leader of the world's Sunni Muslims, the largest branch of Islam. He will meet with the Holy Father on Thursday.

    The Sheik of Al Azhar, who is known to be affable and tolerant, had refused to grant a statement on the papal visit to journalists, but agreed to give the Vatican news service Fides a written statement. In his message, written in Arabic, the Sheik explained: "We welcome with joy the visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Egypt and Al Azhar ... God, the all merciful, created us in this life so we may know each other and open our hearts to harmony and agreement." He quoted a passage of the Koran: "O humanity, we created you man and woman and made you into peoples and tribes that you may know one another."

    The Sheik also explained that dialogue is part of the duties of a Muslim and is the authentic Islamic sharia law "for the good of humanity and the propagation of virtues sustained by all religions. Dialogue between religions allows us to listen to each other, to learn about and compare ideas which commit us in love, truth and justice." But he also warned about "dogmatic dialogue" which "can only widen the gap between the interlocutors. Only God can speak of dogma."

    "For Islam all humanity came from the same parents [Adam and Eve]," the Al Azhar Sheik said. "The Pope's efforts for peace, love, and moral values and virtues are precisely the goal of all the revealed religions."

    He added, "For our part we wish and work for the propagation of peace and security in the world. The leaders of world religions must work together so peace, security, and love may reign among mankind".

    Cardinal Francis Arinze, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said: "We must thank God for this historical encounter between the Holy Father and the Sheik of Al Azhar. The meeting is an indication of the right path for Muslims and Christians. We must come together, listen to each other, and try to build a better world under God's guidance. In religion it is essential to listen to God and communicate with neighbor."


February 28, 2000
volume 11, no. 41

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