Anyone who goes to a synagogue or church might be excused for thinking negatively about Egypt.
After all, it is in the Scriptures that God’s chosen people found their enemy in the Egyptians who had enslaved them. The canticle of Exodus chapter 15, perhaps the most ancient writing in the entire Bible, exults in proclaiming the Lord’s triumph as “horse and chariot are cast into the sea.”
It was not always so, however. The children of Israel had come willingly to Egypt, where their hero was Joseph. He was one of their own. He had been sold into slavery by his brothers but, finding his way into a position into the Egyptian royal court, he was able to save his brothers’ families from famine.
As the Book of Exodus tells us, things changed once there was a Pharaoh “who knew nothing of Joseph.” And even more time has elapsed since all these Biblical events.
So what is the Egypt which Pope Francis visited recently?
We might be surprised to learn of the Christian heritage of this country. It is believed that the evangelist St. Mark founded the church in Alexandria, Egypt, very shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Alexandria, in fact, is one of the five ancient patriarchates recognized in Orthodox Christianity, along with Rome, Constantinople (now known as Istanbul), Antioch and Jerusalem.
Currently, according to Wikipedia, “the percentage of adherents of various religions is a controversial topic in Egypt. An estimated 90 percent are identified as Muslim, 9 percent as Coptic Christians and 1 percent as other Christian denominations, although without a census the numbers cannot be known. Estimates put the Christian population as high as 15-20 percent.” Of these, the majority Christian religion is the Coptic Orthodox Church, with perhaps 7.2 million adherents. Coptic Catholics are a much smaller group, perhaps numbering 160,000.
Egypt was an “early adopter” of Islam, in the seventh century of the common era. Islam became Egypt’s official religion under the presidency of Anwar Sadat (in office 1970 to 1981). We are aware of much persecution of the Christian minority. This sort of persecution can be bureaucratic: there are great difficulties in obtaining permits to build or even simply repair churches. Some persecution is on the part of extremists: just this past Palm Sunday, bombings of the Alexandria cathedral and a church in Tanta resulted in the deaths of at least 45 worshipers.
Pope Francis met with Christian and Muslim religious leaders on April 28 and 29. The major event with Muslims was held at Al Azhar University, Cairo, a great seat of learning which dates back to the tenth century. Pope Francis also visited the Alexandria cathedral where the bombing had occurred just three weeks before.
Think of the change from the days of the Pharaohs. The Egyptian religion was polytheistic. We need to think positively about the fact that Egyptian Christians and Muslims all profess belief in one God. In Egypt, as in all the nations of the earth, we must learn to understand one another.
Egypt is called a “cradle” of human civilization. The baby in that cradle dates back to the 9000s B.C. On this weekend of Mother’s Day, we might consider a mother’s patience in seeing a child emerge from the cradle into maturity. When it comes to human civilization, the process of growing into adulthood takes far longer. We cannot guess at what stage of growth we are as a human family. We know we need greater maturity. We are eager, with the help of our God, to progress to a higher stage of civility.