Catholic patriarch of Alexandria: Pope Francis’s visit will mark a renewal of the Church in Egypt
by Loula Lahham

Anba Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak describes his joy for Pope Francis’s visit and his uneasiness towards his country, hit by terrorism. He talks about the fraternal relations with Tawadros II and those with Al Azhar and President el-Sisi, as well as the renewal of the Church with new bodies, social tasks, and enhanced role for the lay men and women.

Cairo (AsiaNews) – Anba Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak is the Catholic patriarch of Alexandria, the spiritual leader of some 300,000 Egyptian Catholics who are about to welcome Pope Francis in three-days time, on 28-29 April. The prelate was born 62 years ago in the village of Beni-Chokeir in Asyut. In 1980 he was ordained a priest and in 1988 he received his doctorate in theological sciences. After serving as the rector of the Coptic Catholic seminary, he was appointed bishop of the Minya diocese in 2002. He became the Coptic Catholic patriarch of Alexandria in 2013. Here is his interview with AsiaNews.

Your Beatitude, since the first announcement of Pope Francis’s visit to Egypt, you appeared confident and not surprised. What happened at the Vatican?

For us, the announcement of the visit was not a surprise. Every time I met His Holiness in Rome, I invited him to visit Egypt. During our last meeting in February, I presented him with an official invitation. I later learnt that the President of the Republic el-Sisi, Pope Tawadros and Grand Imam el-Tayeb did the same thing. Thus, he will be among us three days from now. I think that, in addition to the favourable media and positive political and tourist results, the visit will generate a lot of joy, and will be a great blessing for Egypt and for the Church of Egypt in general.

The pope’s presence in our country will be a source of great encouragement and spark a great spiritual drive. It will also crown the dialogue with our Muslim brothers. For this reason, we have come up with a slogan and a logo for the visit, which includes the Pyramids, the Sphinx, a cross and a crescent, with well-chosen words. ‘The pope of peace comes to the Egypt of peace’.

With this historic visit, our people will be invited to undertake a spiritual journey inside the Catholic Church so that it can rediscover its pioneering role and its liveliness, like in the past. Coming after Easter, it also marks the long awaited renewal of the Egyptian Catholic Church.

What do you think of the latest acts of terrorism perpetrated against Egyptian Christians?

Truth be told, I am very worried. I'm actually worried about Egypt in general. How long will this wave of violence last in Egypt and the world? Here the law is not applied. When it is not applied once, or twice, violence becomes a habit. If we want to change things, we must first change mind-sets, not religious discourse. The latter can easily speak of love and tolerance, whilst maintaining a rancorous mind-set. It is imperative to change the way people think. It is the only solution that can lead to peace.

What is your relationship with Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II?

I have excellent relations with him. Pope Tawadros is like my brother. He is also a great spiritual friend. Every time I talk to him, I feel he is sincere and kind. He came to my ordination, accompanied by five of his bishops.

What about your relationship with al-Azhar's grand Imam, Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi?

With al-Azhar's grand-imam (Islam’s highest Sunni authority), I only maintain official relations. On the other hand, I met with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi twice: the first at the presidential palace; the other when I offered my condolences following the death of his mother. I think I will meet him a third time on the occasion of the visit of Pope Francis. He is kind, respectful, and takes his responsibilities to heart.

What are the plans of the Catholic Coptic Patriarchate for 2017?

In the fifth year of my patriarchal consecration, I would like to work more on institution-building within the Coptic Catholic Church. This means setting up a new pastoral council, a special court for ecclesiastical affairs and the centralisation of accounting. We also plan to divide the bigger dioceses of the Church into smaller ones. To do this, I need to ordain new bishops.

What about the human side?

I would like to devote more energy to the education of young people, especially those in secondary level and those in the intermediate stage between preparatory and university levels, in whom we involuntarily lost interest.

Are you satisfied with the development work of your large NGOs?

Caritas and the Upper Egypt Association, together with social development actors, work independently of one another. I think we should create a body that covers all the social, humanitarian, and development work done in disadvantaged areas in Cairo and Upper Egypt. Much has to be done for this country and my priests cannot do everything.

What is the role of the laity in your Church?

I rely heavily on the participation of the laity. I expect not only to receive their financial support, but also and especially their ideas, time and effort. They must get down to nitty-gritty, like us and with us. It is the duty of the laity to present alternatives and not merely criticise. When I speak of the laity I speak of men and women. A well-trained woman will surely be chosen to direct an office over any half-trained man.

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