VATICAN CITY – In what will be his first international trip of the year, Pope Francis will be traveling to Cairo, Egypt, April 28-29, showing that interfaith dialogue is a priority.

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WASHINGTON – Despite being victims of harassment and violence, Egypt’s Coptic Christians have set a standard of forgiveness that everyone should imitate, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the U.K. has said.

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CAIRO, Egypt – A spike in attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt, spurred by a video threat from ISIS, has drawn the prayers and concern of advocates, who are urging global leaders to take notice.

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OXFORD, England – A spokesman for Egypt's Catholic Church praised local Muslims for helping embattled Christians after a series of Islamic State attacks in Sinai.

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OXFORD, England – The Coptic Catholic Church has welcomed a new Egyptian law to facilitate the building of Christian places of worship.

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OXFORD, England - Egypt's Catholic Church has pledged respect for the country's justice authorities after a deposed Islamist president was sentenced to death for alleged complicity in a planned jail break.

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MONTREAL - Christians have always faced various degrees of persecution through the centuries and should always be prepared to wear  “the crown of martyrdom,” a Coptic leader in Montreal told his congregation Feb. 28 during a memorial Mass honouring  21 Egyptians who were beheaded on a beach in Libya by jihadists in mid-February.

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JERUSALEM - Six months after the end of the most recent war in Gaza, there is still a "grave humanitarian crisis" in the narrow strip wedged between the Egyptian and Israeli borders, where more than 1.8 million Palestinians live closed off to the world because of an international embargo.

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VATICAN CITY - The 21 Coptic Christians who were beheaded by Islamic State militants died as martyrs, invoking the name of Jesus, said an Egyptian Catholic bishop.

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VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis called for prayers for the Egyptian Christians beheaded by Islamic State militants in Libya and asked that God recognize these men killed for their faith.

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CAIRO - The gruesome video released by militants from the Islamic State showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya has focused the world’s attention on the plight of Christians there and the government’s ability to respond.

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Two revolutions and economic collapse, wars and revolutions raging just beyond every border, his people dispersed around the world, the Internet and mass media eroding old certainties — Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak has a tough job. 

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VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI praised the choice of the new patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, saying he was confident the new leader would help build a new Egypt that would serve the common good of the nation and the whole Middle East.

Bishop Tawadros, 60, was chosen Nov. 4 to lead Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church, the largest Christian community in the country. He will be ordained Nov. 18 as Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria and patriarch of the See of St. Mark.

Pope Benedict said in a telegram to the new pope that he was "filled with joy" upon learning of the news and extended his "good wishes and prayerful solidarity."

"I am confident that, like your renowned predecessor, Pope Shenouda III, you will be a genuine spiritual father for your people and an effective partner with all your fellow-citizens in building the new Egypt in peace and harmony, serving the common good and the good of the entire Middle East," Pope Benedict wrote.

"In these challenging times it is important for all Christians to bear witness to the love and fellowship that binds them together," mindful of God's call for Christian unity, the Pope said.

Pope Benedict noted the "important progress" in ecumenical relations that was made under the guidance of the late Pope Shenouda, who died in March at age 88 after leading the Church for four decades.

More than 2,400 bishops and elite lay leaders voted to reduce a five-person short list to three nominees for a new pope. Bishop Tawadros' name was drawn from a glass bowl by a blindfolded child in a traditional ceremony held at Cairo's St. Mark's Cathedral; the Coptic Orthodox Church says the process lets "the hand of God" make the final choice.

Bishop Tawadros, whose birthday fell on the day of his selection, is bishop of Beheira. He studied pharmaceutical sciences at Alexandria University and reportedly ran a medicine factory before taking his vows.

"He is young — 60 is not so old — and he is well-educated," Fr. Rafic Grieche, spokesman for the Egyptian Catholic bishops' conference, told Catholic News Service. "He can make interior changes to his Church and at the same time be open to other churches and to the country's Muslims."

But the new pope will face a raft of challenges, with political debate in Egypt over how prominent a role Islamic law should play in the country's long-awaited constitution. His reaction to incidents of sectarian violence, which peaked in the months following Egypt's early 2011 uprising that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak, will also be key.

Michael Meunier, president of the U.S. Copts Association, was one of the laymen who participated in the complex election process. He told Vatican Radio Nov. 4 that people saw in Bishop Tawadros a man "who could unite Egypt's Christians in these very difficult times, a man of dialogue."

Dialogue and reconciliation with other Christian churches are critical, Meunier said, "because we are faced with many other challenges from hardliners" and extremist elements in the Muslim community.

"On a whole there is no future for Christians in Egypt without dialogue with Muslims. We have to engage moderate Muslims in the political fight that we face in Egypt, for example the new constitution being drafted; there are a lot of fanatic elements in society and they are going after moderate Muslims, they are going after women and they are going after Christians," he said.

"It is important to have a pope who believes in dialogue with Muslims because it's the only way to help promote democracy, religious freedom, human rights and respect for all these values that we hope for," Meunier said.

Bishop Tawadros will have to win back the support of many Coptic youth, suspicious of the Church's involvement in politics during the Mubarak era. At the height of the 2011 uprising, Pope Shenouda implored Coptic Christians to remain at home, solidifying the Church's reputation for unquestioned loyalty to the state.

Speaking to television cameras at a monastery after his election, Bishop Tawadros suggested he might revise the explicitly political role the Church held under Pope Shenouda's leadership.

"The most important thing is for the Church to return and live consistently within its spiritual boundaries because this is its main work, spiritual work," he said, pledging to "rearrange the house from the inside."

Activists welcomed the new approach, but voiced skepticism over how easy it would be to achieve, given the increasingly important role of religion in Egypt's political discourse. Islamists won more than two-thirds of the seats in the country's last Parliament — dissolved in June — and President Mohammed Morsi is from the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

"It will be very difficult to get himself out of the political arena, when the (Muslim Brotherhood) mixes religion with politics," said Mina Thabet, a 23-year-old Coptic rights activist. "But I think he should."

"It has to change," said Grieche, referring to the days when the Church would back candidates from Mubarak's party in parliamentary elections.

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WASHINGTON - Some of Egypt's Christians feel uncomfortable with Islamists in power, but there is greater freedom of speech than before the revolution, said the Pope's ambassador to the Middle Eastern country.

"I think there is a greater freedom now, though they accuse the present regime of also clamping down on people, on trying to control the press ... so they say that the president is becoming a pharaoh," the Vatican nuncio, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, told Catholic News Service.

"Christians are feeling uncomfortable and certainly the Salafi group," an ultraconservative sect of Islam, "is showing ... disrespect for Christians," he said during a mid-October visit to Washington. "There are complaints and, I would say, they are genuine complaints."

The archbishop said that often what begins as a conflict over property or family affairs turns religious and "ends up with people having their houses burned or their shops destroyed or their place of worship also attacked."

"It's easy to arouse a group of Muslims against the Christians, and there can be also a reaction on the Christian side," he said, adding, "The thing is that people are rather hot-tempered and they don't reason very much before they react."

When there is a problem, he said, Christians feel "that the security forces don't come in time, they always come late, and, very often, they hold reconciliation sessions and the Christians are always the losers.

"They would prefer to have people brought to trial and to be condemned ... to have their full rights," he said.

After Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, an Egyptian military council assumed broad powers. Sixteen months later, Mohammed Morsi of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was elected Egypt's new president.

During those 16 months, the Church sponsored seminars and lectures to encourage awareness of parties and issues. Cairo's justice and peace commission also sponsored candidate forums, the archbishop said.

Morsi has finished his first 100 days in office, and critics say he has not kept most of his promises about what he would achieve in that time.

Egyptians also are awaiting a court ruling on whether the assembly drafting the country's new constitution is legal. Members of Parliament chose members of the assembly, and some Egyptians argue that the assembly does not reflect all sectors of society. The court has said it will issue its ruling Oct. 23.

Fitzgerald said these were signs of emerging democracy.

"Certainly people are ready to criticize the president and to say 'Look, you promised many things, and you're not fulfilling your promises,' ” he said, noting that probably would not have happened before the revolution.

He said he is trying to encourage Christians to participate in the new democracy, although some express fear for what the future holds for their children.

"My own message to them has been, look, there is a new spirit of democracy, and you have to build on that. Though the Islamists are in power now, this doesn't mean to say that they will always be in power. This depends on you," he said.

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ANTAKYA, Turkey - A spokesman for Egypt's bishops gave a cautious welcome to President Mohammed Morsi's reshuffling of top military officials.

Fr. Rafic Grieche, spokesman for the Egyptian bishops' conference, told Catholic News Service that Morsi's decisions were "positive in the sense of politics, but we have to see how he uses these new powers."

"In his first month of office, we still haven't seen anything positive. He did not implement any law that would please Christians," said Grieche, referring to long-standing demands to reform laws regarding personal status and the right to build churches.

After President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, an Egyptian military council assumed broad powers, and Morsi was not the military's favoured candidate in presidential elections earlier this year.

On Aug. 12, Morsi deposed two top generals and cancelled a constitutional decree issued by the military that had stripped the presidency of much of its powers — just before he took office June 30. Morsi replaced that decree with one that gave him broad legislative and executive powers and seemingly brought an end to the military's 60-year dominance of Egyptian politics.

"In the time of Mubarak we couldn't say Christians were fully protected," said Grieche. He said that since the revolution began Jan. 25, 2011, there have been "several incidents between Copts and the military."

"Christians were not very happy with the army, either," he said.

Many Egyptian Christians blame the military for the killing of more than 25 Christian protesters in front of Cairo's state TV headquarters last October.

Grieche said Morsi's mid-August changes made little difference to worshippers at his Melkite Catholic Church of St. Cyril in the upscale Cairo neighbourhood of Heliopolis. The parishioners already were worried by the political gains of Islamist politicians they are convinced have long-term plans to transform Egyptian society.

The priest said many parishioners were "anxious," and several with the means to do so were moving to places like the Netherlands or the United States.

Youssef Sidhom, editor of Christian weekly newspaper Watani, admitted that there were serious concerns about Morsi's changes but added that the situation was more nuanced.

"The grave scenario (some believe) is that Morsi dealt a blow to the military in order to try and adopt his Islamist agenda," Sidhom told Catholic New Service.

But the president's retention of two key military leaders as advisers and his choice of replacements did not suggest a "drastic change" in terms of the makeup of the military, Sidhom added.

"Giving a civilian president full powers was remedying a sick situation. It was a step in Egypt's favour toward democracy," Sidhom said.

"It is true that in the absence of parliament, Morsi has more powers than he had, but this also means he may be forced to speed up elections. We might see these in three months if he is sensible and avoids further legal clashes," Sidhom added.

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