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Encounter In Egypt

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Encounter In Egypt

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Encounter. It’s a word Pope Francis
uses often and something he insists is the concrete first step toward faith and
toward building a better world.

Talking with others and not just about them is key to an
authentic encounter, which was at the heart of what Pope Francis did in Egypt
April 28-29. The success of the trip proved that meeting and respectfully
listening to one person or group does not mean hiding one’s identity, taking
sides against anyone or, least of all, pointing out the other’s flaws while
pretending to have none of one’s own.

In Cairo, Pope Francis joined with the leader of the world’s
premier Sunni Muslim university in insisting that openness to faith is an
essential part of the human experience and in denouncing violence blasphemously
carried out in the name of religion.

Later that night, with quiet reverence Pope Francis paid
tribute to the Coptic Orthodox Church’s modern martyrs, praying before a
memorial in Cairo marking the place where 29 people were killed and 31 wounded
in December by a suicide bomber.

“Your sufferings are also our sufferings,” Pope
Francis told Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II.

Pope Francis did not close his eyes to terrorist violence
carried out in the name of a fundamentalist reading of Islam. But he took at
his word Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb,
the grand imam of al-Azhar University, who opened the conference the day before
saying that terrorism “is not justified by Islamic law or the Quran, but
stems from greatly unjust policies of domination, hegemony and double
standards,” according to the Egypt-based MENA news agency.

Speaking again immediately before Pope Francis addressed the
conference April 28,
el-Tayeb was applauded when he insisted “Islam is not a religion of
terrorism” simply because a minority of people calling themselves Muslims
“manipulate” Islamic texts and “misinterpret them ignorantly.”

If the sweeping generalizations about Islam and violence
were applied to others, the sheik said, “no religion, regime, civilization
or history would stand innocent from (charges of) violence and terrorism.”

When the sheik finished speaking, Pope Francis embraced him
tightly as cameras clicked away. The next day a photo of the embrace was on the
front page of the Vatican newspaper and of newspapers across Egypt and the
Middle East.

Abdal Hakim Murad, who had studied at al-Azhar and is now dean of the U.K.’s Cambridge Muslim College, said, “At a time of great global uncertainty, Francis is looking for a path through a minefield.

“In the Middle East, he seems to know who to reach out
to, and one hopes that in time he will become as popular in the Muslim world as
was his charismatic predecessor John Paul II,” Murad told Catholic News

The embrace of the pope and the imam and the speeches were
not the only things that caught the attention of people in the Middle East.

Pope Francis’ opening words at al-Azhar were “As-salamu alaykum,”
which means “peace be with you” in Arabic and is the standard
greeting among Muslims, especially at prayer and other religious events.

“During a meeting like this, these words are a religious
obligation for us,” Mohammad
Sammak, secretary general of the Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue in Lebanon,
told the news site Vatican Insider. “The pope wanted to say this to all of
us in our language. This really touched the hearts and minds of everyone.”

On the eve of Pentecost in 2013, just two months into his
pontificate, Pope Francis said that creating “a culture of encounter”
is something he always saw as an important part of his ministry and something
he believes the church and the world need more than ever.

A culture of encounter, he said, is “a culture of
friendship, a culture in which we find brothers and sisters, in which we can
speak with those who think differently, as well as those who hold other
beliefs, who do not have the same faith.”

“They all have something in common with us: They are
images of God, they are children of God,” he said. Creating a culture of
encounter is being confident enough to go out “to meet everyone without
losing sight of our own position.”

Shying away from such encounters might seem like a prudent
and safe way to live, but Pope Francis thinks it is completely unhealthy.

“Being closed and isolated always makes for a stifling,
heavy atmosphere, which sooner or later ends up creating sadness and
oppression,” he told diplomats in 2014.

Real encounters happen only when people are honest with each
other, including about what they believe and how they may be different.

At al-Azhar, Pope Francis, who referred to el-Tayeb as
“my brother,” talked about the source of his inspiration for encounter
and, ultimately, peacemaking. “For our part, as Christians — and I am a
Christian — we cannot truly pray to God the father of all if we treat any
people as other than brothers and sisters, for all are created in God’s image,”
he said.

And, celebrating Mass April 29 with members of Egypt’s small
Catholic community, Pope Francis insisted that being a true Christian means
being committed to an encounter with all of one’s brothers and sisters.

True faith, he said in his homily, “makes us see the other
not as an enemy to be overcome, but a brother or sister to be loved, served and
helped. It spurs us on to spread, defend and live out the culture of encounter,
dialogue, respect and fraternity.”

“True faith,” he said, “leads us to protect
the rights of others with the same zeal and enthusiasm with which we defend our

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.


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