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Pope Francis Begins Cairo Visit, Bearing Message of Peace

‘Demagogic’ populism does not help cause of peace.

The pope invoked Egypt’s “glorious history” as an ancient cradle of civilization to argue on Friday that the delivery of a more peaceful future required a new civility that appreciated differences, resisted the violent path of close-minded absolutism and condemned extremists who camouflage terror in religious language.

“An education in respectful openness and sincere dialogue with others, recognizing their rights and basic freedoms, particularly religious freedom, represents the best way to build the future together, to be builders of civility,” the pope said in a speech at a conference hosted by Al Azhar, perhaps the most influential center of Muslim learning and religious formation in Sunni Islam. “For the only alternative to the civility of encounter is the incivility of conflict.”

As the center’s influential Sheikh Tayeb sat beside him on a stage decorated with minarets, Francis said that more attention needed to be paid to educating the young “to counter effectively the barbarity of those who foment hatred and violence” and warned that “evil only gives rise to more evil, and violence to more violence.”

In a decentralized Muslim world, the pope’s speech and his continuation of a dialogue with Sheikh Tayeb provided Muslims with a high-profile counterpoint to the radical language coming from extremists. Al Azhar forms many of the Sunni world’s imams and oversees the education of millions of Egyptian children and college students.

“This is a big moment in Catholic-Muslim dialogue,” said the Rev. Tom Reese, a veteran Vatican observer and senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “Everybody in the Muslim world is going to know that this has happened.”

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Francis during his flight to Cairo.

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Jason Horowitz/The New York Times

To have the pope speaking of Islam as a religion of peace, especially after bombings of Coptic churches during some of the holiest days on the Christian calendar, resonated with millions of Muslims, Father Reese said. He noted that in a time of antagonistic language toward Islam, Francis “is being very countercultural; in some ways, he is almost the lone voice on these issues.”

In a speech at times blunt and other times thick with imagery, the pope said that better cooperation by the two religions could lead to a new generation refreshing an environment poisoned by the one before it. “Young people, like well-planted trees, can be firmly rooted in the soil of history,” he said, “and growing heavenward in one another’s company, can daily turn the polluted air of hatred into the oxygen of fraternity.”

Perhaps calming the concerns of conservative Catholics worried that the pope would drift too far in his search for a Muslim interlocutor with real power, the pope made a point to emphasize that respect for one’s own identity and religious formation was a critical step to having the “courage to accept differences.” It would help the two faiths walk together not as enemies but as “fellow travelers.”

Francis also used Mount Sinai, or the Mount of the Covenant in biblical language, where traditions says Moses received the Ten Commandments, as a powerful symbol for what he hoped would be a new and “urgently needed” covenant between the religions. He reminded that chief among the commandments was “Thou shalt not kill” and spoke against the proliferation of arms. “What is needed today are peacemakers, not fomenters of conflict,” he said, “firefighters and not arsonists.”

Then, in what seemed to be a critique of political Islam, Francis warned against the risk of religion “being absorbed into the administration of temporal affairs and tempted by the allure of worldly powers that in fact exploit it.”

He added, “As religious leaders, we are called, therefore, to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity.”

“We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights,” he said.

During his speech, Francis made a reference to St. Francis of Assisi and his visiting of Sultan al-Kamil of Egypt to promote civility even as crusaders sought to gain control of the Nile.

Alberto Melloni, the director of a liberal Catholic research institution, the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna, said that in the days leading up to the speech, Francis repeatedly made reference to the saint’s visit centuries ago and saw his own mission in a similar vein. “Saint Francis asked for his brothers nothing but the possibility to live amongst them,” said Mr. Melloni, arguing that the pope was essentially asking the same of Sheikh Tayeb.

But Francis, while aware of the historical aspect of his visit, clearly seemed to be pointing his message at the world powers today. In a time where anti-establishment forces are gaining in Europe and the United States, the pope seemed to have a sharp message for Western leaders who have found electoral support in antagonizing Islam. “Demagogic forms of populism are on the rise. These certainly do not help to consolidate peace and stability,” he said. “No incitement to violence will guarantee peace, and every unilateral action that does not promote constructive and shared processes is in reality a gift to the proponents of radicalism.”

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St. George’s church in Tanta, Egypt, was one of two Coptic Christian churches attacked on Palm Sunday.

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Mohamed Hossam/European Pressphoto Agency

Francis prods Sisi on human rights.

In an address to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and a collection of political and civil authorities, Pope Francis gently sought to encourage the authoritarian government’s progress in protecting Egypt’s religious minorities while at the same time making subtle, diplomatic but nevertheless clear allusions to the leader’s crackdown on human rights.

After remarks by Mr. Sisi in front of the Egyptian and Vatican flags at the Al Masah Hotel, the pope, speaking only minutes after a long address at the Al Azhar conference, congratulated the Egyptian government on its efforts toward economic and social development. He recognized Mr. Sisi for having spoken “often” and “with a clarity” against a religious extremism that crushes diversity. But then he pointedly argued that “history does not forgive those who preach justice, but then practice injustice. History does not forgive those who talk about equality, but then discard those who are different.”

Pope Francis also called for the ensuring of “unconditional respect for inalienable human rights such as equality among all citizens, religious freedom and freedom of expression, without any distinction.” He argued that Egypt had a “unique role to play” as a bulwark against spreading violence in the region, “even as it is assaulted on its own soil by senseless acts of violence.”

He sympathized with the victims of that violence, but especially with Coptic Orthodox Christians massacred in attacks on churches in Tanta and Alexandria, and those Christians forced by persecution to flee from the northern Sinai. To that end, he reminded Christians in Egypt, “your presence in this, your country, is not new or accidental.”

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A Coptic church in Cairo. An estimated 10 percent of Egypt’s population is Christian, nearly all of whom belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church.

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Tomas Munita for The New York Times

An embattled Christian community.

In the early centuries of Christianity, Egypt had a Christian majority. But in the 20th century, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, two world wars and the rise of the Pan-Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser contributed to an environment in which some Coptic Orthodox Christians felt endangered and began to leave.

Egypt, a country of about 90 million, is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim today. An estimated 10 percent of the population is Christian, nearly all of whom belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. A vast majority of the Jewish community, who once numbered in the tens of thousands, left in the mid-20th century.

Muslims and Christians live peacefully in much of Egypt, and the country’s richest family, headed by a telecommunications magnate, Naguib Sawiris, is Orthodox Christian. But an ugly strain of sectarian prejudice runs though society, backed by discriminatory laws, which has at times led to violence.

The worst trouble tends to occur in rural areas with large Christian populations, where Muslim mobs burned homes and attacked Christians as recently as last month. Christians complain that, when clashes occur, officials nearly always side with Muslims. More worrying still is the specter of attacks by militants.

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Supporters of the deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak outside Torah Prison, where he was being held, in 2013. The current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has portrayed himself as a protector of Egyptian Christians.

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Bryan Denton for The New York Times

After Mubarak’s fall.

After the Arab Spring, Christians pressed for a secular, democratic state that would better protect minority rights. Many saw the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists as an ominous turn and were openly relieved by the military takeover that removed the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi from power in 2013.

Mr. Sisi, who removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power, has pleased some in the Vatican with his efforts to better safeguard the rights of the Christian minority, though many remain troubled by his crackdowns on the Brotherhood and other political enemies.

The bombings this month — and oppressive laws barring Christian converts from changing their religious affiliation on identity documents, and imposing stiff restrictions on church building — showed that Egypt is still a trying place for Christians to live.

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University students waiting to hear Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al Azhar mosque, speak in Cairo in 2015. The pope will attend a peace conference hosted by the sheikh while in Egypt.

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Nariman El-Mofty/Associated Press

The role of Al Azhar.

Perhaps most important, Mr. Sisi’s government has slowly removed extremist ideology from school books. But when it comes to Islamic formation, it is Al Azhar University, perhaps the most influential center of Sunni Muslim learning in the world, that is crucial.

The university has said it would reassess the language in its textbooks and has made improvements, according to the religious freedom report. In May, its grand sheikh visited Francis in the Vatican, a visit the pope is reciprocating with his appearance at a conference on peace organized by the university on Friday.

Al Azhar trains a vast number of the Muslim world’s imams and has oversight over more than two million children and an additional 400,000 university students around the country.

Mr. Sisi’s government, which has tightened its grip on Muslim religious institutions, funds Al Azhar and pays the salaries of many clerics.

Mr. Sisi’s efforts to exert tight control over the affairs of Al Azhar are resented by many clerics, and have been a source of some tension.

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