Pope raises human rights concerns with Egyptian President

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Pope Francis met the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi this week at the start of the Arab leader’s first European tour.The visit marked the first between an Egyptian leader and a Pope in eight years, since before the Arab Spring which ultimately propelled the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi to power and a huge popular uprising which ousted him a year later.

President Sisi visited the Vatican following an invitation from the Pope, the Egyptian Presidential spokesperson said. During their meeting Pope Francis stressed the importance of strengthening constitutional safeguards on human rights and religious freedom, adding that he hoped inter-religious dialogue would continue in Egypt.

The Pope also asserted “the closeness and solidarity of the Church to all the people of Egypt during this period of political transition.”

Egypt’s Christians, most of whom are Coptic Orthodox, reported worsening persecution under Morsi, and still suffer discrimination. The Pope also urged Sisi to ensure Egypt’s role in promoting peace and stability in the Middle East and North Africa.

“It was reiterated that dialogue and negotiation are the only options to put an end to the conflicts and to the violence that endanger defenceless populations and cause the loss of human lives,” the Vatican said in a statement following the visit.

According to a presidential spokesperson the Pope also said he wanted to restart the Vatican’s relationship with Sunni Islam's highest theological institution, al-Azhar University.

The university, which sent representatives to the Vatican with President Sisi this week, suspended dialogue with Rome after Pope Benedict XVI called for better protection of religious minorities in the wake of a bomb attack on a Coptic church in 2011. The university argued he should have extended his comments to the many Muslims suffering from war.

Al-Sisi, the former head of the armed forces, was also to meet Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and French President Francois Hollande during the tour, which is aimed at securing European investment in the Egyptian economy after the political upheaval of the last three years. Morsi’s ouster in 2013 was widely welcomed across Egypt, including by church leaders, though some Western commentators believed it to have come about as the result of a coup.

Photo: Pope Francis shakes hand with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi during a meeting at the Vatican, Monday, Nov. 24, 2014.

The Tablet