At the Vatican on Friday not one, not two, but three popes were inside the tiny city-state’s walls at the same time.
Coptic Pope Tawadros II and Catholic Pope Francis, each addressing the other as “Your Holiness”, prayed together for reconciliation among communities and nations without mention of events in Egypt. Tawadros has previously denounced a wave of anti-Christian attacks there.
A short walk from where they met in the Apostolic Palace, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is living out his retirement in a convent in the Vatican gardens. There were no plans for Tawadros, making his first trip outside Egypt since his election in November, to meet Benedict.
The tall, black-robed Tawadros is the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the largest Christian Church in Egypt. He is only the second Coptic pope in history to visit the Vatican.
In their public speeches, neither Francis, 76, nor Tawadros, 60, made direct mention of the recent sectarian violence in Egypt between majority Muslims and Christians, who make up about 15 percent of Egypt’s population of 84 million.
Francis spoke of an “ecumenism of suffering” among Christians and in joint prayers afterwards in a Vatican chapel both leaders heard a prayer for “all countries and communities which are victims of conflict and violence” and for “peace and harmony without discrimination and injustice”.
Attacks on churches and sectarian tensions increased after the rise of Islamists to power in Egypt following the 2011 uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak, although Christians had demonstrated alongside Muslims for his removal.
Christians in Egypt have long complained of discrimination in employment and treatment by the authorities and have called for changes in laws to make it as easy to build or renovate churches as it is for mosques.
In an rare interview last month, Tawadros told Reuters that Egypt’s Christians feel neglected by Muslim Brotherhood-led authorities, who proffer assurances but have taken little or no action to protect them from violence.
“There is a sense of marginalization and rejection, which we can call social isolation,” he said.
Christianity is believed to have been brought to Egypt by the evangelist Mark in the first century.
Tawadros invited Francis to visit Egypt, but he would need a parallel invitation from the Egyptian government to made such a trip.