Thursday April 7, 2005

Pope mourned in Egypt

The pontiff is remembered as a proponent of inter-faith dialogue

By Ursula Lindsey

The pope made particular efforts at interfaith dialogue in recent years—such as his visit to Egypt in 2000.



Pope John Paul II, the 84-year-old head of the Catholic Church, passed away on the night of 2 April after a long and complicated illness. He is mourned by Catholics around the world, and many Muslims also expressed their respect for him because of his anti-war stances and his support of inter-faith dialogue.

On 3 April, a Sunday, the small Catholic community in Cairo gathered for services and mourning. By then, everyone knew that Pope John Paul II had passed away the night before.

"I was up till 3 a.m. in front of the TV," one parishioner told another sadly as she slid into her pew at St. Joseph’s Church in Zamalek.

"Everyone is feeling that we lost a father," says Bishop Youssef Ibrahim Sarraf of the Notre Dame de Fatima Basilica in Heliopolis. Bishop Sarraf explains that there are about 250,000 Catholics in Egypt and that they represent seven Catholic rites—Latin, Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Chaldean, Coptic and Maronite—all of which, of course, recognize the Roman pope as the supreme authority of their church.

Bishop Sarraf says he has been receiving condolences from outside the Catholic community. That may be because Pope John Paul’s opposition to the Iraq war and calls for a Palestinian state made him a popular figure in Egypt and the whole Middle East.

"He was very respected by people of all religions," says Mahmoud Shakel, a shoe-maker and devout Muslim. "He was a man of peace."

The pope seems to have made particular efforts in the last years to support tolerance and dialogue between the three monotheistic religions. He would frequently send Vatican delegations to meet with Islamic scholars on Al Azhar’s committee on inter-faith dialogue. He traveled to more than 20 Islamic countries, and in 2001 he was the first pontiff to make an official visit to a mosque, the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus.

"This was a very important visit," says Bishop Sarraf. "Maybe this was the first step to meet Muslims directly. So this was the beginning of a real dialogue between the Catholic Church—between Christianity and Islam."

The pope apologized to Jews for centuries of anti-Semitism on the part of the Church, and to Muslims for the massacres that took places during the Crusades. These efforts were particularly well-received by Muslims who have felt that their religion was being misrepresented or vilified as part of the U.S.-led "war on terror."

During his trip to Egypt in 2000, the pope also paid visits to Coptic patriarch Pope Shenouda III and the Sheikh of Al Azhar Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi.

The day after the pope’s death Sheikh Tantawi praised him for his wisdom and grasp of world events. He also expressed his gratitude for the role the pope had played in Iraq and Palestine.

"I hope the new pope will follow the same ways of the previous one," the sheikh said. "The way of tolerance, love, peace, justice and standing by oppressed people to help them get their rights."

President Mubarak, Sheikh Tantawi and Pope Shenouda all issued statements expressing their condolences. The Arab League flew its flag at half mast.

Copyright © 2005 Cairo Magazine

Cairo values your feedback.
Please send comments on this story to