The Egypt of Pope Francis, Between Reality and Fantasy

The Egypt of Pope Francis, Between Reality and Fantasy


Sandro Magister
27 apr 17

After Fr. Henri Boulad, another Egyptian Jesuit and Islamologist is framing in politically incorrect terms the upcoming visit of Pope Francis to Egypt. His name is Samir Khalil Samir. He is 79 years old and teaches at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and at the Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut.

Fr. Boulad’s interview with “L’Osservatore Romano” was covered by Settimo Cielo ten days ago:

> “Islam, Religion of the Sword.” The Alarm of an Egyptian Jesuit

While Fr. Samir’s extensive interview with Giuseppe Rusconi came out this morning on the blog Rossoporpora:

> Papa in Egitto. Intervista al gesuita Samir Khalil Samir

It is a must-read for understanding the backdrop of Pope Francis’s visit.

For example, here is what Fr. Samir says with regard to the university of Al-Azhar, which has become so mythologized:

“First of all, it is not a university in the western sense, because its task is that of forming imams. It is essentially a big faculty of Islamic theology. The most problematic and most grave aspect is that over the years the teaching material has not changed: the books are still the manuals of seven centuries ago.”

With regard to the violence in the Quran and the Muslim nature of ISIS:

“Everything that ISIS is doing is found in the Quran or in the Sunnah, the records of deeds and words from the life of Muhammad. I will give an example. When ISIS captured a Jordanian pilot, they put him in a cage and burned him alive. Al-Azhar’s reaction was that this act was not Islamic, because there is a saying of Muhammad that establishes that punishment with fire is reserved to Allah. Unfortunately, there is another saying of Muhammad. They come to him with two men who were caught performing a sexual act with each other. And he: ‘Burn them and throw the bodies into the desert.’ This variety of possible citations, opposed to one another, is a tragedy for Islam.”

With regard to Pope Francis’s intentions and his understanding of Islam:

“His aim is that of doing all he can to reconcile publicly with the Muslim world. For him, all the religions are religions of peace, and all the religions have their fundamentalists. This can be surmised from some of his remarks made off the cuff, responding to questions from journalists on the papal airplane. As when, on the way back from the apostolic journey to Poland, he put on the same level the acts of violence of Muslim fundamentalists and those of men in Italy, a Catholic country, who kill their girlfriend or mother-in-law. The fact is that the pope came to know Islam through a reputable imam of Buenos Aires. . . .”


One point on which Fr. Samir insists is the growing Islamization, according to the canons imposed by Saudi Arabia, not of extremist fringes but of the Egyptian population as a whole.

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One comment on “The Egypt of Pope Francis, Between Reality and Fantasy

  1. Will the real interview with Fr. Samir please stand up?

    Title suggested by the 1956-1968 TV program “To Tell the Truth” in which three contestants claim to be a person with an unusual distinction or occupation; one is telling the truth, and the other two are impostors; the panelists ask them questions in hopes of identifying which contestant is telling the truth and then vote their choice, after which the show’s host says, “Will the real —– please stand up?”

    Two interviews with the Jesuit Islamic expert, Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, on the Pope in Egypt are circulating the Catholic blogosphere. One is in English, “Pope Francis in Egypt: ‘Re-knitting the ties with Islam'”, and published by Aid to the Church in Need as well as summarized on Catholic World Report. The other is only in Italian, PAPA IN EGITTO: INTERVISTA AL GESUITA SAMIR KHALIL SAMIR” (Google English translation below), and posted on the Rossoporpora blog as well as referenced in the above post on Sandro Magister’s Settimo Cielo blog .

    Pope Francis in Egypt: ‘Re-knitting the ties with Islam’

    “Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with more than 1.5 billion Muslims present in almost every country of the world. We cannot ignore it.”

    By Mario Bard
    Wednesday, April 26, 2017

    What would you say to Pope Francis in regard to his approaching visit to Egypt? Would you tell him to stay in Rome or to go ahead with his visit?

    Being the man he is, I think he must go. He is not someone who is afraid. At the same time, considering the possibility of an assassination attempt, I believe that Egypt will do the impossible to protect him and ensure that there are no dangerous elements around – if only for their own sense of honor. Looking at it this way, I think that everything should go ahead normally.

    Moreover, for a long time now he has wanted to re-knit the ties between the Vatican and Islam. This is what he told me personally when I had a conversation with him a few months ago. He told me, “Why is it that I insist on the fact that Islam is a religion of peace? Because we need first of all to rekindle our friendship with the Muslims and with Al Azhar [University].”

    Why is it necessary to “re-knit ties?”

    Let me recall the context: there was the attack in Alexandria on the Coptic Church at Christmas, six years ago. Someone blew himself up and there were dozens of deaths. A few days later Pope Benedict XVI, in a meeting with the ambassadors at the Holy See, said: “I call on the president of the Egyptian Republic to protect the Christians.” In response, Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb, the rector of Al Azhar, declared that it was unacceptable for the Pope to interfere in Egyptian politics and broke off relations with Rome.

    Today, after a number of fruitless attempts, relations have resumed. And it was the principal aim of Pope Francis to re-establish relations with Islam and with the Al Azhar University in particular, which represents the majority of Muslims in the world, Sunnis–who account for 80 percent of all Muslims. The institution represents an unassailable moral and intellectual authority for them.

    Father Samir Khalil Samir, SJ.2.jpg

    Why is it important to maintain an interreligious dialogue with Islam?

    First of all, Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with more than 1.5 billion Muslims present in almost every country of the world. We cannot ignore it. Second, because Islam is a monotheistic religion, alongside Judaism and Christianity. And hence we have to be able to engage in dialogue with them. That is the essential aspect. It is not a question of a political goal. It boils down to saying: let us endeavor to understand one another. In just the same way, we maintain a dialogue with the Jews.

    People are saying that the Middle East is in the process of becoming emptied of Christians. What can be done to change the way the wind is blowing? Even many Muslims do not want this to happenMost Muslims say: “We need the Christians.” Recently there was a radio broadcast in Egypt which impressed everyone. The theme of the 8-minute program centered on the Christian schools which educated the intelligentsia of Egypt in the 19th and 20th centuries.

    People can also look at Lebanon, which is the only country in the Arab world with a certain degree of parity [between Islam and Christianity], precisely because it was the Christians that built the nation—even though today they represent no more than 35 percent of the population. In the country’s Parliament, Muslims want to retain the balance of 64 Muslims and 64 Christians, because they maintain that this is essential. It is recognized as essential by all the Muslims who think about it.

    Besides, as to the disappearance of Christians in the Middle East, in Egypt it is they who are, so to speak, the indigenous ones! People are aware that if they wish maintain a national conscience, they cannot eliminate the Christians.

    Unfortunately, for reasons that are political, economic and religious, the Christians are leaving, more and more. What is happening at the moment is what’s wanted by ISIS. But they are fanatics. However, as a whole, Muslims are not fanatics. They lack the courage to say that [these terrorists] should be arrested. Instead, they say: ‘”it has nothing to do with Islam.” But that does not solve the problem. Nonetheless, in their heart of hearts, the majority of Muslims say [of the deadly attacks on Copts]: “no, it is shameful!”


    GIUSEPPE RUSCONI – – April 27, 2017

    For wide-ranging interview with the famous Jesuit scholar of Islam Egyptian imminent apostolic visit of Pope Francis in Egypt. Who and how many are the Copts? Orthodox and Catholic Copts. The progressive Islamization of Egypt, thanks to the money of Saudi Arabia. Nasser and the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Azhar, the Koran of Mecca to Medina. The Crusades, the reaction act. Fundamentalists? true Muslims. The expectations for what the Pope will say.

    In a building on the corner of Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore – where starts Via Carlo Alberto which leads to Piazza Vittorio – finds particular institution hospitality, founded a century ago by Pope Benedict XV is the Pontifical Oriental Institute , “its headquarters in higher education in the City on the East issues “. Entrusted by Pope Pius XI in 1922 to the Jesuits, it remains in such hands in our 2017. ‘So there we find a very well-known Jesuit, a scholar of Islam of (good) international reputation we want to seek guidance on the important apostolic journey that Pope Francis will Egypt tomorrow and the day after tomorrow is father Samir Khalil Samir . Born on January 19, 1938 in Cairo, a Jesuit since 1955, was for 43 years a professor at the Pontifical Oriental Institute and also 31 at the Université Saint Joseph in Beirut, where he founded and directed the Center de Documentation et de Recherches Arabes Chrétiennes (CEDRAC). Seventy-nine years old and still going strong, white beard, bright eyes and inquisitive, Samir – which also was contributor to the foreground of the Special Secretary in the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East (10 to 24 October 2010), much appreciated by Benedict XVI – received us in a small room on the first floor. And the conversation will be long. I refer below, recalling that Pope Francis will meet on the first day Egyptian President al-Sisi (with discussion of both), the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (with both speech), the papa copto Tawadros II (with discourse of both) and it will be greeted in the evening by 300 young people; the second day, the Company plans to put the air force stage (25 thousand seats), lunch with Egyptian bishops and the meeting with clergy and seminarians of all Egypt (the Pope’s speech). Then return to Rome.


    Father Samir, let’s start from the definitions. Who are the Copts?

    The term ‘Copts’ comes from the (ruling Upper Egypt) ‘gipti’, which obviously refers to ‘Aegyptoi’, the Egyptians. When in 639, Egypt was invaded by the Muslims of the Arabian Peninsula, they asked the residents: “Who are you?” And they said, “Egipti”. And ‘then drop the’ e ‘and the term for Westerners has become’ Coptic ‘.

    As he just said leads to the conclusion that the Egyptians were Christians …

    Yes, they were all Christians. The word ‘Copts’ remained, although in the West today, most people do not think the relationship between ‘Copts’ and ‘Egyptians’. The story thus shows that the Copts are Egyptians infinitely more than anyone else and, from this point of view, Muslims are the ‘intruders’ in Egypt, came later. The Muslims know this and recognize it. There is even a small intellectual movement of Muslims – I have known a few – who call themselves Muslims gipti to indicate that the Copts are part of their history. The Coptic language is an evolution of the rest of Egyptian Pharaohs.

    How are today the Copts in Egypt?

    It is estimated – we have no precise data – that the Copts correspond to about 10% of the population; Today would then be just over 9 million.


    The Copts are Christians: how the Orthodox, many Catholics?

    When you say ‘Coptic’, you think of the Orthodox Copts, who are the great majority. In the eighteenth century began to be there Coptic Catholics, now about 200 thousand, before these become under the influence of the Franciscan missionaries in Upper Egypt, then by the Jesuits and other orders.

    What are the differences today between Catholics and Orthodox Copts?

    Almost no. The liturgy is literally identical, excluding the Pope’s mention, in the part of the Mass in which what is expected. Even up to 30 years ago, when the Congregation for the Oriental Churches has published a liturgical missal Coptic Catholic, we always used the Coptic Orthodox books printed in Cairo.

    Theologically there is not the slightest difference: when you say that Orthodox Copts are Monophysites, is more a matter of terminology that dogma. The difference lies only in the Rome of the pope function, recognized as primus inter pares , but not as primate of all Christians.

    There are Catholic-Orthodox mixed marriages?

    Yes, it is something usual. It does not give problems. The use throughout the East is that you get married in her husband’s ritual. Of course for Orthodox Copts Eastern influence is there any greater than the Coptic Catholics, more sensitive to Latin influences: for example, the Coptic Orthodox practice generally more strict fasting; Coptic Catholics celebrate some more recent Western saints.


    Other Christians in Egypt, in addition to the Copts?

    Until the sixties of the twentieth century, Egypt was very strong influence of the Chaldean Catholics, Armenians, Syrian Catholics, and especially Maronites and Melkites. Not today.

    When they arrived in Egypt?

    In the nineteenth century, especially from the current Lebanon and Syria – then only one country called Syria – after the attack of the Druze in the context of the 1860 war between Druze and Maronites of the Lebanese Mountain. The most wealthy and well-educated exiles came to Cairo and Alexandria: was the era of Caliph Isma’il Pasha said “the Magnificent ‘, who had studied in France and favored the opening of Egypt to the West, to Europe .

    For us it was like a Renaissance. For example, two exiles from Lebanon and Syria, the greek-catholic brothers Salim and Bishara Taqla founded in 1875, a major newspaper, which still exists today: the famous Al-Ahram, “The pyramids” . The cotton industrialization was promoted by the Syrian family Boulad and so on.

    One can imagine that they even counted in the political …

    It ‘a logical consequence: the exiles had also acquired a significant influence in politics and collaborated among others closely with King Fouad and Farouk. Schools in Egypt were largely Catholic, thanks among other things to the arrival from France of the Brothers of the Christian Schools and, later, the Jesuits; Schools for girls were the Ladies of the Sacred Heart, those of the Mother of God and those of Our Lady of the Apostles. The French culture was dominant in the cultural Egypt, while the policy was under British influence.


    Then came the revolution of 1952, promoted with popular favor in the name of anti-corruption and anti-British imprint, by a group of ‘Free Officers’ led by Nasser and Naguib, which followed the abolition of the monarchy and in 1954 the’ coup ‘of Nasser, Naguib he did put under house arrest …

    In the past sixty years and Egypt has changed. Nasser was not an Islamist, a little ‘it was his successor, Sadat, which introduced Article 2 of the Constitution on sharia Islam as the basis of law in force in Egypt, as well as having encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood. Then the Saudi influence has grown with the successors Sadat. Already in the last decades of the last century, it struck observers of the changes in clothing: great tunic for men and headscarves for women. On this last point it is known that Muslim organizations gladly give a certain amount to the families because girls to dress all’islamica.

    The story, always on the veil, an episode in which he starred Nasser, during a meeting with the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful organization founded in 1928. Caito Nasser, leader of a popular revolution, was interested in good relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, who also had a strong popular base. During the meeting, the party asked Nasser to impose the veil. Then Nasser shook himself and said, “Why, you are not able to impose the veil at your college daughter and pretend that I impose to ten million Egyptian women?” And the conversation ended.


    It can be assumed that, despite the overthrow of President Morsi (linked to the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’) and the taking of power of the military with Al-Sisi, the influence of Islam today is still increased in Egypt …

    Yes, because Saudi Arabia always inundates Egypt of money intended to support the Islamist cause-Wahhabi. Do you think that over one hundred thousand farmers have migrated to Saudi Arabia, where they carry out other work to support his family. When they return, the Saudi impose customs, how they were subjected to brainwashing. It ‘obvious then the pressure on the government of Saudi Arabia, which results in a continuous strengthening of the Islamic presence in the media and in school: announcers wearing a veil, a river of religious broadcasting and film about the life of Muhammad during the month of Ramadan, the Islamization every year more of textbooks, grammatical examples from the Quran, the rote memorization (of pages of the Koran), even in the mathematical sciences. Islam progresses in small steps, but at all levels. Very even through the sermons of imams with megaphones, of which Nasser had banned the use.


    The current president of al-Sisi is not presented as a fundamentalist Muslim …

    Place there after the coup army, Al-Sisi appears as a practicing Muslim, but that it will not mix his faith with politics. I think he wants to change things, but can not do in a short time, given the strong resistance of Islamic Organizations, and also of the University of Al-Azhar. To the latter in December 2014 he had called for a cultural revolution in the interpretation of the Koran and today concerning the attitude towards women.

    On al-Azhar we will return later. Meanwhile, Father Samir, tell us how heavy inside Islamization of Egypt, Islam that defines commonly fundamentalist …

    It weighs a lot, is strong, because it is part of the people for Ramadan , for example, Islamist organizations are organizing dinners with the distribution of soup for everyone. Or they help financially distressed families. The Islamists quote the Koran every sentence. And ‘then evident that people feel that those are “true Muslims.” They present themselves to the people, not intellectuals: for Ramadan organized with distribution of soup dinners, symbolic and concrete things.


    But what are the Muslim fundamentalists Muslims?

    They are certainly Muslims, considered by people rather like ‘the Muslims’, because they apply to the letter the rules of Islamic tradition. For example, on Friday, at the hour of prayer, it is impossible to walk through the streets of Cairo: All the sidewalks are occupied by Muslims in prayer, how to Viale Jenner in Milan. Or in front of houses. I remember being passed among them, saying: “The sidewalk is made for all.”


    Let’s go back to Al-Azhar …

    There is first of all a university in the Western sense, because his job is to train imams. And ‘in fact a great faculty of Islamic theology. The most problematic and most serious is that over the years the content of teaching have not changed: the books are always those of the fourteenth century. The basic books are manuals of seven centuries ago and the Qur’an 14 centuries ago. All he does the Isis is in the Koran or in the Sunna, that is the collection of facts and sayings of Muhammad’s life.


    Someone replied: But if the Koran dates back 14 centuries ago, the Gospel must go back twenty …

    The fundamental difference is in the contents of the two texts. In the Gospel there is a passage in which he says: “You have to kill someone.” Indeed, if one gives you a slap, you have to turn the other cheek. The Quran is instead full of violence. Moreover, no Christian will think to apply literally every gesture of Christ, but will try to rethink it for today; while these Muslims want to play physically all the words and deeds of their founder.


    There is also a first part of the Koran rather peaceful …

    Yes, that’s the part about the permanence of Muhammad in Mecca, when he wanted to be accepted, on that part of his speeches are soft, appealing for everyone. In the first two years of Medina, Mohammed has good relations with three Jewish tribes of the Arabic language; learn, assimilates and transposes … for example the fast of Ramadan was originally a single day, that of the Jewish Yom Kippur; the orientation of prayer was Jerusalem, not Mecca, etc … Then Muhammad, who had also adopted elements of the Old Testament, suggests the Jews to recognize him as a prophet. They polite refusal, take revenge.

    And it is from that point that the violence comes in the Koran …

    In fact, on the pretext of an alleged leak of Jewish information about him the benefit of the Meccan enemies, Muhammad slaughters, in February 627, the most important of the Jewish tribes, the Banu Qurayzh: from six hundred to eight hundred throats slit, according to historians Muslims. And wars are taking place.

    In short, when you quote the Koran about non-violence in matters of faith, it is referring only to the first part, that of Mecca. When we say that Islam is a religion of peace, it is referring only to the first part. But to give objective information you need to know the whole story of Mohammed; and this is not always apparent to those who venture in absolute judges and irenic Islam.

    In the Qur’an there are violence and non-violence, as I showed in a book bearing this title. Just as in Islam globally understood. Do you want to pursue the one? Get a verse à la carte ‘. Do you want to pursue the other? Also pick your own verse à la carte . No one will be disappointed.


    Father Samir, met Pope Francis to talk about it?

    Yes, Monday, June 4, 2016. For half an hour. The Pope sat in Santa Marta in her small apartment. He told me once that was determined to ‘mend’ the rift with Al-Azhar, which had suspended all contact with the Vatican in recent years of Benedict XVI, author of the famous keynote address “Faith, Reason and the University – Memories and Reflections”, held September 12, 2006 in Regensburg. The ‘ Lectio’ caused by people who had not even read the text , a mountain of protests and dozens of acts of violence. Therefore, after the attempt to bomb a Coptic church in Alexandria (the night of January 1, 2011, 21 deaths and 79 injured), Pope Benedict XVI called the “Egyptian government to take effective measures for the protection of religious minorities”. Soon after, the imam of Al-Azhar had decided to break off relations with the Vatican.

    It can be deduced from what Pope Francis is willing to do anything to mend the ‘tear’?

    Yes, its purpose is to do everything possible to reconcile publicly with the Muslim world. For him all religions are religions of peace and all religions have their fundamentalists. It is also apparent from some of his considerations made in arm, answering questions of journalists on the papal plane. Like when, returning from apostolic trip to Poland, put he equates the violence of Muslim fundamentalists with that of those in Italy, a Catholic country, kills his girlfriend or mother-in-law …. The fact is that the Pope has known Islam by a good Buenos Aires iman …


    You said before the interview told us of something that happened a month ago in Tunisia …

    On the sidelines of a conference held in Tunis on 24 March, a party has reproached the existence of a Christian violence, making the example of the Crusades. It ‘a bad example, because the Crusades were not an act of Christian initiative, but were caused by a decision of the Sultan of Egypt, to -Hakim bi-amr Allah, who in 1009 had ordered his secretary Melkite Christian writing a letter to the governors of all the provinces – that would go to Syria – why did demolish all the churches, beginning with those of Jerusalem. On 18 October 1009 the basilica of the Holy Sepulcher was destroyed and was rebuilt by the Byzantine emperors and completed under Constantine Monomakh in 1048. Tens of churches were partially destroyed in Syria and Palestine, what provoked the response of the Crusades.

    We can not forget that at the time the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulcher for Christians was a very important act for the remission of sins …

    Certainly. Uncovered the effects of the order of the Sultan, the pilgrims arrived in Jerusalem and then returned to Europe, spread the news. Of course it took years for the circulated news would reach the ears of the Pope. Then arose the Crusades, to be understood first of all as – I repeat – act of aggression Muslim response. The Crusades were the expression of a defensive act, if properly inserted in the ethics of the time.


    They often associate Christians to colonization …

    And I observe: “But you say? You pass from religion to politics! In fact Christ has never told us: Go and fight . But you do it in the name of Allah “.

    You say that Isis is not Muslim? Consider then a little ‘its flag. And ‘black as that of Mohammed. Porta written: “There is no God but Allah; and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. ” The Muslim creed is this. Below you see a sword, like the one that is also in the Saudi flag. More Muslims than that … Besides all the fundamentalist organizations have their imam, who decides whether a certain act is legally permissible or not.

    I still do an example. When Isis has captured a Jordanian pilot, she puts him in a cage and burned alive. Al-Azhar has responded by claiming that the act was un-Islamic, because there is a saying of Muhammad which states that the punishment with fire is just Allah. Unfortunately there’s also another saying, Mohammed himself. They come to him with two men caught while carrying out a sexual act between them. He said, “Burn them and throw their bodies in the desert.” This variety of possible citations, opposed to each other, for Islam is a tragedy.


    What you can expect from the Pope’s visit to Egypt, tomorrow and the day after?

    As for the meeting with President al-Sisi, as said good Muslim, but also eager to distinguish the religious and political spheres, I would expect that the Pope insisted on the need for Christians in Egypt are considered citizens like everyone else. For years, we ask that prevail citizenship on religious and we hope that this time something moves in this direction.

    And as for the speech held at the University of Al-Azhar?

    I think that will make a speech mainly on the theme of non-violence. I hope it also affect the necessary distinction to be made between politics and religion. You must be able to understand that Al-Azhar speaks for her, not for the whole of Egypt.

    The apostolic visit will also have an important ecumenical aspect …

    … and it will be sure of support and encouragement for Egyptian Christians, who suffer the violence of fundamentalist Islamic groups. Pope Francis in the visit will be accompanied by patriarca Bartolomeo and the meeting with the Pope Coptic Orthodox Tawadros – with whom relations are already very good – promises auspiciously to strengthen practical cooperation among brothers.

    As you see, I am by nature optimistic. I naturally hope of not having to then correct!

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