CAIRO – In the first visit by a Pope to Al-Azhar, the highest seat of religious learning in the Sunni world, Pope Francis sent a message of unity in the face of killing in the name of religion in a special visit to Cairo on Thursday and Friday, pressing for closer Muslim-Christian ties.
“Let us say once more a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God,” the Pope said in an address to a peace conference organized by Al-Azhar.
“Together let us affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith, belief and hatred,” he said.
Invited by Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Pope Francis became the first pope to visit the headquarters of Al-Azhar.
Meeting an array of religious and political leaders in his brief stay, telling reporters travelling on his plane that he was carrying a message of peace and unity.
Religious leaders of all faiths must “counter effectively the barbarity of those who foment hatred and violence” and “respond to the incendiary logic of evil,” the Pope said.
The Pope made specific reference to Mount Sinai in his address, invoking one of the Ten Commandments passed down to Moses – “Thou shalt not kill”.
He is the second pope to visit Egypt, following John Paul II, who came to the most populous Arab nation in 2000.
The pontiff has repeatedly said that Christian-Muslim dialogue is the only way to confront fundamentalism.
In his speech delivered at the conference, Sheikh El-Tayeb addressed the status of faith in modern life.
“With all these accomplishments [of the 21st century], how come peace has become a lost paradise? The answer, I assume, is that modern civilization has ignored religion,” he said.
Visiting Al-Azhar university, the Pope also condemned the “rise of demagogic forms of populism”, adding it was essential” to “block the flow of money and weapons” bound for those who promote violence “which purports to be carried out in the name of the sacred”.
Francis stressed the importance of good education. “To counter effectively the barbarity of those who foment hatred and violence, we need to accompany young people,” he said.
In his own speech, Tayeb said militants had “carelessly” and “ignorantly” misinterpreted religious texts. “Islam is not a religion of terrorism,” he said.
On Friday, Francis met Coptic Orthodox patriarch Pope Tawadros II, and both attended an emotional mass at the church hit in the December suicide bombing.
They prayed at a makeshift shrine for its victims, who were mostly women.
They also signed a joint declaration pledging to “strive for serenity and concord through a peaceful co-existence of Christians and Muslims”.