- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2000

Pope John Paul II has never been one to care about taboos. So it was not surprising when he put almost a millennium of division behind him last week by making the first visit ever by a Roman Catholic pope to Egypt and meeting with Pope Shenouda III the highest Egyptian Christian figure for the Coptic Orthodox church. Beside beginning to bridge the gap with a denomination that has long rejected papal supremacy, his meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak created a historic foundation for unity with a people who have long had a distant relationship with the Vatican.

The meetings with the president and the Coptic Orthodox church followed another outbreak of violence New Year's Eve when 23 people were killed in the village of el-Kusheh, 275 miles south of Cairo. All but two of those killed were Coptic Christians, the other two were burned beyond recognition, the Washington-based human rights group Center for Religious Freedom said. While the pope didn't comment on the specific incident, he did denounce religiously motivated violence.

In his own non-aggressive way, the pope has brought to Egypt a spotlight on religious reconciliation. For the first time, Egyptian state television aired three days of coverage of Christian services and holy sites. And St. Catherine's monastery, a place of worship near Mount Sinai for the Greek Orthodox for 1,500 years also became a place of prayer for the pope last Saturday, despite the break that faith had also had with Roman Catholicism around 1,000 years ago. After an unprecedented meeting with the highest authority of the Sunni Muslim faith, Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, the pope received a commitment from the Muslim leader to visit the Vatican this fall.

Of course, the pope's three-day visit will not bring resolution to Egypt's religious conflicts overnight. Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 64 million people, have been burned, shot and tortured for the last 38 years there. These attacks have resulted in at least 211 deaths, according to Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom.

Mr. Mubarak's words calling for an opposition to "all forms of discrimination, injustice, and double standards" provides no guarantee that the government will be able to protect the Copts from further human rights abuses. After all, former President Anwar Sadat exiled Pope Shenouda for four years in the 1980s for speaking out against the Muslim-Copt clashes. For a faith whose history has been shaped by persecution a sensitivity to repression will not soon disappear.

When the pope initiated a cross-faith dialogue with the Egyptians though, he extended an invitation to Egyptians of all faiths to do the same amongst themselves. "We must make this pilgrimage to the places which saw the beginning and unfolding of the history of salvation, the history of the irrevocable love between God and men, the Lord's presence in time and in human lives," the pope said in a Mass celebrated with thousands of Egyptians. At a time when religion is being injected in a very ugly way into American politics, it's a message more than Egyptians need to hear.

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