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  Pope’s Visit to Egypt Seen as Aid to Christian-Muslim Relations

Pope John Paul II’s visit to Egypt was generally well received among the Egyptian public, with some Muslims and Christians hoping he would encourage better relations between the two faiths. The pope’s first words at a welcoming ceremony at Cairo’s international airport Feb. 24 were in Arabic: As-salamu alaikumPeace be with you! He then delivered a brief but pointed message against all forms of intolerance and violence between religions. To do harm, to promote violence and conflict in the name of religion is a terrible contradiction and a great offense against God. But past and present history give us many examples of such a misuse of religion, he said.

The pope’s arrival prompted an unprecedented show of interreligious hospitality. After kissing a bowl of Egyptian earth, he was warmly greeted by the leaders of Egypt’s Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic communities: Grand Sheik Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi, Coptic Orthodox bishops and Catholic Coptic Patriarch Stephanos II Ghattas. The grand sheik’s presence at the airport was not part of the original program and was seen as a special sign of respect toward the pope. Tantawi is considered the highest religious authority for the world’s one billion Sunni Muslims.

We must all work to strengthen the growing commitment to interreligious dialogue, a great sign of hope for the peoples of the world, the pope said. The pope’s words assumed special significance in Egypt, where sporadic violence has flared between Christian and Muslim populations in conflicts that often have political causes. At the beginning of the year, more than 20 people, most of them Christians, were killed in the southern city of Kosheh, reportedly by their Muslim neighbors.

The pope paid visits later in the day to the most important centers of Islam and Orthodox Christianity in Egypt, where he received a warm reception and heard a common refrain from his hosts: religions must work together for peace.

Pope Shenouda III, the 76-year-old patriarch of Orthodox Coptic Christians, welcomed Pope John Paul II to his residence with a speech extolling ecumenical cooperation. Pope Shenouda had been waiting a long time for the Roman popesince 1973, to be exact. That was when Pope Shenouda came to Rome, met with Pope Paul VI and signed an agreement on Christology with the Catholic Church.

At the ecumenical service, as the sounds of nearby Muslim calls to prayer filtered into the cathedral, the Coptic patriarch brought applause when he embraced the pope and told him: We love our country, and we love you! Pope John Paul replied moments later, I would like to reciprocate by saying: We love you, too.

The welcome at the al-Azhar University complex was just as friendly. Sheiks and imams crowded around the stoop-shouldered pontiff to whisper a few words of greeting. The pope is a symbol of love. All Muslims are happy about his visit, said Sheik Gamal Katb, a teacher of history and law at the university.

Sheik Tantawi, after a lengthy prepared speech to the pope, announced that he planned to make an unprecedented visit to the Vatican next fall to participate in dialogue sessions. He also praised the pope for being so close to the Palestinian people, prompting a burst of applause in the room. The sheik said he thought Christians and Muslims could agree on some basic beliefs: that humankind derives from one man and one woman, that religion is a gift that should make people realize their potential and that religion is fundamental for human development.

In extemporaneous remarks, the pope agreed, and added: Islam is a religion and a culture. Christianity is a religion and a culture. The future of the world will depend on the dialogue between the different cultures and religions.

The pope also visited the sixth-century Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai. He fell to his knees and prayed at the spot where, according to the biblical account, God first appeared to Moses in the burning bush. Although the pope was welcomed by Archbishop Damianos and his community of 22 Greek Orthodox monks, they refused to join the pope’s prayer service.

Bush Denies Accusations of Anti-Catholicism

Texas Gov. George W. Bush told Cardinal John J. O’Connor of New York in a letter dated Feb. 25 that he wanted to assure Catholics that his appearance at Bob Jones University does not mean he approves of the anti-Catholic and racially divisive views associated with the school. Charges of anti-Catholicism have followed the Republican candidate around the country since he spoke at the evangelical Christian university in South Carolina in early February. The school bans interracial dating as immoral, and its leaders have called Catholicism a cult and likened it to satanism.

The Bob Jones University issue reached a peak during the Michigan primary campaign, when some voters there received recorded phone calls that accused Bush of religious bigotry because of his appearance and urged support for Senator John McCain of Arizona. Cardinal Adam J. Maida of Detroit decried the injection of religious bigotry into the campaign in his state. The Archdiocese of Detroit goes to great lengths to encourage political involvement and responsibility, he said, but it’s not our approach to label candidates as pro’ this or anti’ that, he added. Catholic Voters Alertthe name of the group that made the anti-Bush callsis not affiliated with the church, said archdiocesan officials.

Cardinal Maida’s post-primary critique of campaign tactics also was directed at calls made in Michigan by Michigan Right to Life. The organization made recorded calls urging voters to support Bush, whom the National Right to Life Committee has endorsed. The calls reportedly challenged McCain’s commitment to the pro-life cause.

The Texas governor, in his letter to Cardinal O’Connor, released on Feb. 27, said he should have been more clear in disassociating myself from anti-Catholic sentiments and racial prejudice. It was a missed opportunity, causing needless offense, which I deeply regret. Bush noted that his brother and sister-in-lawFlorida’s Gov. Jeb Bush and his wifeare both Catholics, and said he has profound respect for the Catholic Churcha sympathy beyond mere tolerance.

Bob Jones University, in response to the political furor, explained on its Web site that if there are those who wish to charge us with being anti-Catholic, we plead guilty. But we are not Catholic-haters. It added, All religion, including Catholicism, which teaches that salvation is by religious works or church dogma is false. Religion that makes the words of its leader, be he pope or other, equal with the Word of God is false.... We love the practicing Catholic and earnestly desire to see him accept the Christ of the Cross. Bob Jones III’s late father, former university president Bob Jones Jr., was known for calling the Catholic Mass blasphemy and referring to the papacy as the religion of the anti-Christ and a satanic system.

A third Republican candidate, former Ambassador Alan Keyes, spoke at the university on Feb. 14 and challenged his audience to reject racial and religious bigotry. Keyes, who is black and a Catholic, noted that there are folks who don’t think I should be talking at Bob Jones University.

Objections to Papal Visit in Israel

While Israeli authorities are preparing for Pope John Paul II’s pilgrimage in March, they have had to contend with opposition to the visit from various groups. In Jerusalem, members of the rightist group Kach issued pamphlets against the pope’s visit, calling it foreign work, and graffiti opposing the pope’s visit were found on Feb. 27 scrawled along walls of the Chief Rabbinate. Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Israel Meir Lau strongly condemned the attacks. We have very bitter memories (of the church) in the past...but Judaism speaks to us about turning an enemy into a friend, and [this] turning of a friend into an enemy is not acceptable. We need to give the pope the respect due him, Rabbi Lau told Israel Radio.

A group of rabbis opposed to the celebration of Mass by the pope in Nazareth on March 25, which falls on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, met on Feb. 24 with the apostolic nuncio to Israel, Archbishop Pietro Sambi. They presented him with a petition signed by several thousand rabbis asking that the Mass be postponed so as not to force Jewish security personnel to desecrate the Sabbath. The nunciature spokesman described the meeting as very good and friendly.

Meanwhile, in Nazareth, the Islamic Movement retains custody of a plot of land in front of the Basilica of the Annunciation, in which Pope John Paul is scheduled to celebrate Mass on March 25. A spokesman for the Ministry of Public Security denied media reports that the government would request that the site be evacuated before the papal Mass takes place [see Am., 2/12].

Weakland Writes to Priests About Successor

Archbishop Rembert Weakland in a private letter published by The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel responded to concerns expressed by his priests about his impending retirement in two years. The age of experimentation,’ as minimal as it seemed to some, has moved into an age of more consistent and uniform practice in rubrics and laws. His successor, he feels will be a part of this new moment toward uniformity especially in liturgical and sacramental practice. He expects him to enforce church norms on confession before first Communion, kneeling during the eucharistic prayer and general absolution. Holding out at this moment on any issue as a prophetic stance does not strike me as helpful pastorally to our people, even though I would hope that debate about so many aspects of renewal would continue to take place among us, for they are not finished issues.

If my generation, the first after the Council, erred in some of its more radical implementations of Vatican Council II, it did so out of zeal and unbridled enthusiasm, but with a clear theological perspective that it derived from Vatican Council II, he concluded. I fear the restorationist implementation that is characterizing the second post-conciliar generation will err on the side of rigidity, rubricism, and a fear of the gifts of individuals, especially of the laity, and build their renewal more on reaction than on theological insights. The subsequent or third generation may well just get it right, but most of us by then will already have seen the fullness of Truth.

Comments

Cecilio Morales | 1/17/2007 - 1:49pm
The unnoted and little known fact related to your item about the fallout from George W. Bush’s visit to Bob Jones University (Signs of the Times, 3/11) is that, for all the Republican crocodile tears about Catholics, the U.S. Catholic Conference was politically in bed with Bob Jones in the early 1980’s, when the Internal Revenue Service questioned the institution’s legitimacy as a tax-exempt organization.

I know because I was among several U.S.C.C. staffers who were appalled. We were told by the legal department that they didn’t want to break the education coalition. In other words, despite the bishops’ pastorals about racism, the leadership of the U.S.C.C. was clearly willing to overlook it when tax subsidies might be at stake.

Cecilio Morales | 1/17/2007 - 1:49pm
The unnoted and little known fact related to your item about the fallout from George W. Bush’s visit to Bob Jones University (Signs of the Times, 3/11) is that, for all the Republican crocodile tears about Catholics, the U.S. Catholic Conference was politically in bed with Bob Jones in the early 1980’s, when the Internal Revenue Service questioned the institution’s legitimacy as a tax-exempt organization.

I know because I was among several U.S.C.C. staffers who were appalled. We were told by the legal department that they didn’t want to break the education coalition. In other words, despite the bishops’ pastorals about racism, the leadership of the U.S.C.C. was clearly willing to overlook it when tax subsidies might be at stake.

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