After the beheading of 21 Christians in Libya, Archbishop Justin Welby contacted me and expressed his desire to come and give condolences to Pope Tawadros II and the Christian community in Egypt. This incident shook the conscience of the whole world, awakening the church worldwide to the fact that Coptic Christians are ready to die for the sake of their faith in Christ.
Archbishop Welby arrived in the early hours of April 19 and left at the early hours of the next day. In addition to the condolence visit to the Pope, meetings were organized between the Archbishop and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as well as with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyib.
At the meeting with the President, Archbishop Welby offered his condolences for the victims of terrorist attacks in Egypt, especially those by ISIS in Libya against Coptic Christians. He thanked the President for his care and support for the Christian minority. At this point, the President emphasized that Egyptian Christians are not a minority but members of one Egyptian family. “They have full rights as Egyptian citizens,” the President said.
The Archbishop also commended the President for his speech at the beginning of the year in which he challenged religious leaders to re-new the religious rhetoric.
President Sisi replied saying that terrorism and extremism are the products of ignorance, poverty, and isolation from the modern world, in addition to a poor religious rhetoric. He shared his hopes that Western universities would offer scholarships to Egyptian students, which would not only advance their technical skills and knowledge, but also expose these students to different cultures, opening new generations to the diversity of the world.
During this meeting, I was able to share with President Sisi our efforts to build bridges between different faith communities. One of such projects was “Planting a Tree of Hope,” which helped school-age children from different religious backgrounds to learn to accept differences. Another is the ongoing “Imam-Priest Exchange,” a project that builds relationships between religious leaders. The President expressed his appreciation, and was also thankful to receive a copy of A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue and other books published by the Anglican Church in Egypt. The President also agreed to allow us to use a quote from his Christmas visit to the Coptic Cathedral: “the solution to our problems is to seriously love one another.” The meeting lasted for 70 minutes and was very warm and encouraging.
At the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, Archbishop Welby handed Pope Tawadros II twenty-one letters of condolence written by members of the Church of England. The Pope shared about the strong faith exhibited by parents of the martyrs in Libya, who are proud of their sons for not denying Christ, welcoming instead their death for his sake. I also shared with the Pope the song, “Oh Lord Jesus (Ya RabYessua),” written by a Scottish pastor inspired by these events. The Pope was greatly encouraged and appreciated the visit.
The meeting with the Grand Imam was also very successful. Archbishop Welby assured the Grand Imam of his prayers for his efforts to renew religious rhetoric . The Grand Imam said that Christianity is a religion of love and Islam is a religion of mercy, and that in these crucial times we need the teaching of both. He also praised the warm relationship and fruitful cooperation between the Episcopal/Anglican Diocese of Egypt and Al Azhar Al-Sharif.
Hope and anticipation were clear in each of these visits. We were particularly impressed by the President, who has a clear vision of what he wants to achieve for Egypt.
The visit concluded with a packed service at All Saints’ Cathedral, attended by members of Cairo’s Sudanese, Egyptian, and expatriate Anglican congregations. In his sermon, Archbishop Welby expressed his gratitude for the faithful witness of Middle Eastern Christians, even in the face of great adversity, encouraging listeners to continue to demonstrate the love of Christ to the world.
After the service a reception dinner was organized with former Grand Mufti Dr. Ali Gomaa and representatives of the Coptic Orthodox, Chaldean Catholic, and other Middle Eastern churches, the Archbishop returned to the airport. On the way back from dinner the Archbishop said “I am amazed by the ability of the Episcopal/Anglican Diocese of Egypt to bring many people from different backgrounds together.”
Archbishop Justin Welby’s visit was a great encouragement and demonstration of the unity of the global church in the face of adversity. For its success we give thanks to God.