“Pope of Peace in Egypt of Peace” – Fr Wilson Kodav SMA recalls historic visit

“As someone commented, it seemed easier for a camel to get through a needle hole than it was to go the Pope’s mass…

This visit was important for the esteem of the Egyptian people and especially Egyptian Christians. Despite the extreme and cumbersome security measures, Pope Francis looked happy and we all loved his simplicity and effort to even speak Arabic. He touched our hearts and this visit will remain embedded in our hearts for a long time.

The history of Egypt is long and complex. It is challenging to look at a recent event, such as Pope Francis’s two-day visit to Egypt, against the ever evolving background of Egyptian history. To do so we must also consider Egyptian politics as well as social and religious developments. So, where does one start the story? 

Pope of Love welcomes Pope of Peace

From 8th to 10th May 2013, Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church paid a courtesy visit to Pope Francis in Rome, shortly after Francis’ election, during which he extended a formal invitation to the Pope to visit Egypt. This invitation was reiterated by President Al-Sisi when he visited Pope Francis on 24th November 2014.

Rumours about the Pope’s visit to Egypt started going around in 2016, different people expressing their views about it: some saying it was impossible considering the security issues, some saying it was going to be a boost to the suffering economy by promoting tourism, some saying it was going to show the importance of Christians in this great nation.

Contrary to what happens in other countries where the Pope visits, this one was clouded with a lot of mystery. Until January 2017, there was no official indication that the Pope was coming, yet the rumours were getting stronger, probably due to the high levelled preparations going on in the background. It was not until 18th March that the official announcement was made concerning the long-awaited visit.

Egypt being the land of the Copts, it is natural that the Coptic Catholic Church, one of the seven Catholic rites (and the one with most numbers), be the one in charge of such official Church functions. The Catholic community in Egypt has about 272,000 members, less than 0.5 percent of the population, which is 90 percent Sunni Muslim.

Once the announcement was made, formal preparations began almost immediately and in a rather panicky manner as everyone realised there wasn’t enough time. There were coordination issues as well as a lot of confidentiality over security, such as the venue of the Pope’s mass and the exact program of the visit which was to last for 24 hours.

Aftermath of bombing in St. George’s Coptic Church, Tanta, Egypt (Photo Courtesy of CoptsUnited)

Two tragic events back-dropped the Pope’s visit: the bomb attacks at St George’s Coptic church in Tanta and St Mark’s Coptic church in Alexandria which killed at least 45 people on the morning of Palm Sunday. As shocking as these were, and to the delight of many in Egypt, the Vatican didn’t hesitate to confirm that the visit was not being cancelled.

Eventually the D-day came: Never before has anyone in Egypt seen the kind of security detail that was effected during the 27 hours that the Pope was on the ground. Entire roads were blocked. The entire Island of Zamalek which houses the Apostolic Nunciature (where the Pope spent the night) was locked up and anyone walking in had to present valid identity documents. The deserted streets and bridges were lined up with armed police, both uniformed and in civilian attair. Fortunately, being a Friday, little is disrupted as generally it’s the weekend and streets are usually not crowded.

Once he touched down at Cairo Airport, the pontiff, shunning the armoured motorcades normally reserved for visiting heads of state, climbed into an ordinary Fiat, and, with his window wound down, drove off into the heavily guarded capital to the presidential palace. “Pope of Peace in Egypt of Peace,” read posters plastered along the practically empty airport road.

The afternoon was a busy one with three high levelled meetings planned: With President Al-Sisi, with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Imam of the government-run Al-Azhar mosque and participated in a Peace Conference at the same venue, before meeting with Pope Tawadros II for an ecumenical prayer service.

Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros II at the Coptic St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church in Cairo, Egypt April 28, 2017.

What interests us is the common declaration made by the two Popes concerning repetition of baptisms:

“Today we, Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros II, in order to please the heart of the Lord Jesus, as well as that of our sons and daughters in the faith, mutually declare that we, with one mind and heart, will seek sincerely not to repeat the baptism that has been administered in either of our Churches for any person who wishes to join the other. This we confess in obedience to the Holy Scriptures and the faith of the three Ecumenical Councils assembled in Nicaea, Constantinople and Ephesus.”

Meanwhile, havoc reigned as organisation for the Pope’s mass continued. All participants had to be listed down in detail a week prior to the mass. These names were to be counterchecked by secret service and attached to identified buses, whose drivers were also checked through. This means that on the day of the Pope’s mass, one had to make sure he entered the bus in which his name had been listed.

And this is exactly what happened: On Saturday 29th April, we all had to be in the bus by 4:00 am. It had been made clear that no phone or cameras were to be allowed in the stadium. We came to know of the venue two days before the mass, that it would be the 30th June Military Stadium that is strategically surrounded by mountains.

The first security check was right at the front of our church before we entered the bus. There were police ready to frisk us all and check that we had no phones or cameras or any other forbidden electronic gadgets. The bus was then escorted to the second check within our Shoubra environs where other buses were lined up according to the numbers. The lists of passengers were checked again and anyone not on the list was mercilessly pulled out.

We then went in convoys of 10 buses with a police escort to the third check point where again the lists were checked and everyone was frisked and the buses thoroughly checked for any devices. The convoy then continued to the stadium bus park where buses were parked in an orderly manner. It was coordinated in such a way that everyone, including our dear bishops had to arrive in these buses and at the same moment. Only diplomats came in individual cars.

Two more check-points before we were ushered into the stadium, and those with concelebrating cards to the Mass dais. As someone commented, it seemed easier for a camel to get through a needle hole than it was to go the Pope’s mass.

Pope Francis arrives for mass at a Cairo stadium

The mass was beautiful. Simple, inculturated with the Coptic liturgy, good weather, good singing, Pope Francis in his usual bubbly good mood, we all felt blessed and all the effort it took to get there was worth it. We prayed with our blessed father and he spoke words of encouragement to us.

After mass, it was time to rush to the diocesan seminary where the Pope was to meet all priests and religious. Considering the distance between the stadium and the seminary, and all the complication concerning buses and who is to be dropped where, most of us did not make it for this meeting.

This visit was important for the esteem of the Egyptian people and especially the Christians. Despite the extreme and cumbersome security measures, Pope Francis looked happy and we all loved his simplicity and effort to even speak Arabic. He touched our hearts and this visit will remain embedded in our hearts for a long time.

Wilson Kodav, SMA