(Terrasanta) - Pope Francis has expressed his solidarity with the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church on Friday, during an historic meeting with the Church’s leader, Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark.
Francis spoke of the strong bonds that exist between the Catholic and Coptic Orthodox church and paid tribute to Coptic martyrs and others who have “borne witness to the Gospel from generation to generation, often in situations of great adversity.”
“If one member suffers, all suffer together, if one member is honored, all rejoice together,” Pope Francis said, quoting St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The Holy Father referred to “an ecumenism of suffering” in which the sharing of daily trials “can become an effective instrument of unity.”
From that shared suffering, he added, “can blossom forth forgiveness and reconciliation, with God’s help.”
Egypt’s Christians, who have had to live with widespread discrimination for centuries, have faced increasing attacks from Islamist groups since the fall of the Mubarak regime in 2011 and the election of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in 2012.
Last month, St. Mark’s cathedral in Cairo – the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church – came under attack from an Islamist mob and security forces, leading to the deaths of two Christians. Bomb attacks, forced conversions of Christians, and other sectarian conflicts have also been on the rise.
But statements on the political situation in Egypt were kept to a minimum at the meeting, reportedly in a bid to lessen tensions back home. The low-key approach was also said to be aimed at avoiding last year’s controversy with Al Azhar university following Benedict XVI’s condemnation of the 2011 New Year’s Eve bomb attack on a church in Alexandria.
Francis is only the second Pope to receive the Egyptian church’s leader at the Vatican in over 1,500 years. Tawadros, elected last November to succeed Pope Shenouda III, is visiting the Vatican primarily to mark the 40th anniversary of the meeting between Shenouda and Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in 1973.
That visit led to a Christological Declaration and the healing of centuries of tension and conflict between the two churches, mainly centered on theological differences.
In his address, Pope Francis said it was a “milestone on the ecumenical journey” and that the Commission for Theological Dialogue that emerged has “yielded good results and prepared the ground for a broader dialogue” between the two churches which “continues to bear fruit to this day.”
Francis added that although “the path ahead may still prove to be long”, both churches yearned for the day “when, in fulfilment of the Lord’s desire, we will be able to communicate from the one chalice.”
The Holy Father fondly recalled Blessed John Paul II’s meeting with Pope Shenouda in Cairo in 2000, and expressed his gratitude for Tawadros’ expressions of fraternal charity, shown most notably to the new Catholic Coptic Patriarch, Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak, and his predecessor, Cardinal Antonios Naguib, who stood down because of poor health.
He also highlighted Tawadros’s intitiative to establish a “National Council of Christian Churches”. “Let me assure you,” Francis said, “that your efforts to build communion among believers in Christ… find a deep echo in the heart of the Successor of Peter and of the entire Catholic community.”
Francis and Tawadros later held a shared prayer meeting, after which the Coptic Orthodox leader visited officials at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and other dicasteries of the Roman Curia. Pope Tawadros then visited the tombs of the Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
After Rome, the Coptic Orthodox leader will visit Turin and Milan, arriving in Milan on May 14th where he will visit Cardinal Angelo Scola as well as the local Coptic community.
The Coptic Patriarch said he hopes to welcome Pope Francis in Cairo.