The Vatican is confirming a papal trip to Egypt is under consideration but that no dates or itinerary have been finalized.
The statement by spokesman Greg Burke came after Italy’s
state-run RAI reported Francis would visit Cairo’s Al-Azhar, the leading
center of learning of Sunni Islam, on May 20-21.
The Vatican and Al-Azhar recently restored relations that the Cairo
institute severed in 2011 to protest comments by then-Pope Benedict XVI.
Benedict in 2011 had demanded greater protection for Christians in
Egypt after a New Year’s bombing on a Coptic Christian church in
Alexandria killed 21 people.
Since then, Islamic attacks on Christians
in the region have only increased, but the Vatican and Al-Azhar
nevertheless sought to rekindle ties.
Last May, Al-Azhar’s grand imam, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib, visited Francis.
St. John Paul II became the first modern pope to visit Egypt in 2000,
part of a special itinerary for the Jubilee Year of 2000 styled as
following the footsteps of Moses.
On that occasion, John Paul visited
both Al-Azhar and also the headquarters of the Coptic Orthodox Church,
the largest Christian community in the Middle East and roughly ten
percent of Egypt’s population.
In recent years, Copts have complained of both overt harassment and
violence by the country’s militant Islamic factions, and also of neglect
and indifference by security services and Egypt’s political leadership.