A tender, open glance, with an attention to create a relationship immediately. Pope Tawadros II, head of the Orthodox Coptic Church and Patriarch of Alexandria, welcomed us at the St. Beshoy Monastery in Wadi El Natroun, 100 km. North of Cairo, on the Desert Road leading to Alexandria. As soon as we took a sit in the elegant lounge of the monastery, we asked him to tell us of that terrible Palm Sunday where, first in a church in Tanta and then in Alexandria, two explosions caused many dead and injured. The ribbon of time rewinds and the reconstruction of that morning runs slow. Pope Tawadros was in that church of Alexandria when a terrorist first attempted to enter the church and then, blocked at the metal detector, self-exploded at the entrance. Fortunately, the celebration of the Rite that opens the Holy Week was over, and the church had already emptied. There were only some security agents and volunteers who were arranging the palms. Pope Tawadros, along with the celebrant clergy, had already moved to an adjacent building, on the second floor of the Patriarchate. They had just finished their breakfast and drank their tea. They were preparing to leave the building when around 12.40 pm they heard an explosion. “It was a very loud and strong noise,” says Tawadros. “Some priests rushed downstairs to check what happened and they found out about the explosion that had caused the death of many people. It was terrible, tragic, and painful. Fortunately, shops were closed because it was a feast day, and most of the faithful had left the church. It was an effect of divine grace.”
What did you feel when you heard the explosion?
I asked the Lord: why? Why, God, did allow your Church and your children to live such a difficult time? The second thing I thought about was the image of Egypt around the world. These attacks affect the country’s life, its economic and social life. They strike indiscriminately all Egyptians, Christians and Muslims alike.
They are a wound in the heart of Egypt.
What is the Ecumenism of Blood?
This is a definition by Pope Francis. The martyrs who witness to the Lord are everywhere. They consolidate Christianity wherever it is and strengthen our faith. Pope Francis used it for the first time during my first visit to the Vatican after his enthronement in 2013. The second time he used it in a public speech after the killing of the 21 martyrs in Libya. I would like to add something important to us.
The Church lives and consolidates upon three pillars: sweat, tears, and blood.
Tears are those poured out by the holy and hermit monks living in the desert’s caves and cells. Sweat is that poured out by the theologians who spend their time searching and studying. Blood is that poured out by the martyrs. Their blood preserves the Church in the passage of centuries and strengthens her in troublesome times.
What will you tell Pope Francis when you meet him here in Egypt?
Welcome to Egypt! Soon after he became Pope I paid a visit to the Vatican in May 2013. I found a man full of the Holy Spirit. I was very happy because I could touch his love and generosity at a close range. We have been his guests in the Vatican. I remember that we agreed to set a date to celebrate fraternal love between us. The choice fell on the10th of May, in memory of the first visit of an Orthodox Coptic Pope to a Roman Pope on May 10, 1973 (Paul VI and Schenouda III, editor’s note). Every year we remember that encounter and we celebrate the love that binds us together. I am keeping in touch with Pope Francis through phone calls. In addition to these official ceremonies, there is an agreement between us: to pray on that day in a particular way for each other.
How do you see the role of Pope Francis today in a world marked by wars and terrorism?
This is the slogan chosen for the visit of His Holiness Pope Francis: “The Man of Peace in the Egypt of Peace”.
Yes, he is a true witness to peace and truth. Wherever he goes, he is a messenger of the voice of all the most fragile and suffering people in the world.
Wherever he is, we are granted peace. This is why we are so happy about this visit.
During the stay of Pope Francis in Cairo, the al-Azhar University will organize an International Conference on Peace. What is the role of religions in relation to peace? What (and how) can religious leaders do to take away any form of radicalism from the religious discourse?
Al Azhar is the official institution of moderate Islam here in Egypt. The fierce acts of violence we have witnessed to were perpetrated by people who misunderstood the Koran and the Islamic religion. We, in Egypt, have been peacefully coexisting with Muslims for more than 14 centuries. We have never experienced any form of terrorism and violence similar to what we are experiencing in these days. Islam does not recognize itself in this violence and this terrorism. This is why Al Azhar had the idea of organizing this conference, to maintain that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism, extremism, and fundamentalism.
This is a very meaningful initiative.
How will Egypt come out of all this after the visit of Pope Francis?
It is a very short visit, but it includes some important moments. The visit to President Al Sisi, the visit to al Azhar, the visit to the Orthodox Coptic Church, to the Catholic Church, and the fact of meeting the Egyptian people. This journey is important for sending a message to the whole world:
Egypt is still an oasis of security and peace.
I would like to add one last remark: the attacks we have experienced have given witness to Jesus Christ and Christianity. Egyptians were impressed and astonished at the way Copts reacted to such violence by not choosing hatred but the way of tolerance even to those who sow fear, make evil actions, and cause death.
Are you saying that after all that you have experienced, after so much mourning and sorrow, there is no hatred in the hearts of the Copts?
We possess nothing but our love for the Lord and our love for all people.