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A Tale of Two Popes and the Challenge of Preserving Christianity in Its Birthplace

As newly elected leaders of their respective Christian faiths, Pope Francis I and Egypt's Coptic Pope Tawadros II face a wide array of internal and external challenges. One presides over a global church of 1.2 billion, the other a smaller Mideast church of 12-18 million. But a primary challenge for both is the fate of Middle East Christianity, which is on the verge of extinction in the region where the religion was born.

Early in their papacies, both Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros have shown a willingness to break from convention and challenge the status quo. But as leaders of ancient churches with two very distinct sets of issues, they also must put aside past doctrinal and theological issues to work together to confront the challenges of preserving their faith and bringing peace and stability to the Middle East.

"The [Catholic] church has had an abiding concern of all people and in particular of people who are persecuted for their faith," Stephen Colecchi--director of the Office of International Justice and Peace for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), an assembly of all active and retired U.S. Catholic leaders--told JNS.org.

During a historic meeting between the two popes in May, Pope Francis assured Pope Tawadros of his support in the face of persecution of Egypt Christians, citing the New Testament verse, "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (1 Corinthians 12:26).

"This is a law of the Christian life, and in this sense we can say that there is also an ecumenism of suffering: Just as the blood of the martyrs was a seed of strength and fertility for the Church, so too the sharing of daily sufferings can become an effective instrument of unity," Pope Francis said.

Despite Christianity being the largest religion in the world with 2.2 billion followers, according to Pew Research Center, it is also one of the most persecuted faiths. According to Open Doors, a non-denominational Christian human rights group, more than 100 million Christians are persecuted worldwide, with eight of the top 10 countries for persecution of Christians being Muslim-majority states.

The Roman Catholic Church considers itself the world's "one true church" and the only church to which Jesus gave explicit authority through his apostle Peter, who later became the first pope, according to the Catholic interpretation of the Christian Gospels.

The modern Catholic Church is actually composed of the Latin Church, where the vast majority of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics belong, and the Eastern Catholic Church, composed of smaller churches scattered throughout Eastern Europe, the Middle East and even India.

The Eastern Catholic Churches maintain many of their own traditions and hierarchy separate from the larger church, but are in full communion with the Catholic Church, most importantly recognizing the Pope as their leader. Two of the largest Eastern Catholic Churches are the Maronite Church in Lebanon, with about 3.5 million adherents, and the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, one of the largest groups of Christians in the Levant with 1.6 million adherents, including in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Like the Catholic Church, the Coptic Church of Egypt goes back to the foundations of Christianity. According to tradition, their church was established by one of Jesus's apostles, Mark, in 42 CE.

Coptic Christians constituted a majority of Egypt's population until the Middle Ages, when Islam, introduced by the Arab invasions in the 7th century, eclipsed their religion. Today, Coptic Christianity comprises nearly 10 percent of Egypt's 85 million people, making it the largest single Christian community remaining in the Middle East.

Like all religions, the divisions between the different churches in Christianity have had a tense history with various doctrinal and theological schisms. For much of their history, the Catholic and Coptic Churches have had little formal relations. However, today under the dynamic leadership of their respective popes, the two ancient churches are attempting to forge a common message in the face of mutual threats, such as from radical Islam.

During the Egyptian revolution in early 2011, then Coptic Pope Shenouda III was slow to criticize former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Elected to the Coptic Papacy in 1971, Shenouda was a pragmatic and conservative leader who relied on Egypt's successive secular governments for protection against Islamic fundamentalists.

Despite the arrangement, Coptic Christians faced a number of attacks over the years by Islamic fundamentalists and often accused Egypt's security forces of not doing enough to protect them. This put Shenouda in a difficult position--between maintaining relations with the secular state and protecting his followers. As a result, he was often reluctant to speak out against the government.

"[Pope Tawadros's] predecessor, Pope Shenouda III, refrained from directly confronting [President Hosni] Mubarak and his regime. But it looks like the current Pope Tawadros is fed up, especially with the unprecedented attack on the cathedral," Halim Meawad, co-founder of Coptic Solidarity, a U.S.-based international Coptic human rights organization, told JNS.org in April following the attack on St. Mark Cathedral, the holiest site in Coptic Christianity.

After the attack, Pope Tawadros harshly condemned recently ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi for not doing enough to prevent the violence. It was one of the first times in recent memory a Coptic leader spoke out against the government.

Prior to that incident, Pope Tawadros was also an outspoken critic of Morsi's new Egyptian constitution, which he accused of discriminating against Christians. Unlike during the uprising against Mubarak, the Coptic Church under the leadership of Pope Tawadros played an active role in Morsi's ouster.

"[Pope Tawadros] got himself very involved and spoke up loudly against the Muslim Brotherhood; he actively encouraged his followers to participate in the demonstrations on June 30," Meawad said.

Following Morsi's ouster, Pope Tawadros, along with Grand Imam of al-Azhar University Dr. Ahmed el-Tayyib and secular opposition leader Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, publicly supported a roadmap for a new government presented by General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Pope Tawadros's public profile during the uprising has made him a target for Islamists.

"The Islamists issued several death threats against Pope Tawadros. As a result and at the security forces' request, he has canceled his weekly sermon and meeting with his congregation for the 5th consecutive week. His movements and whereabouts are all secret," Meawad said.

While Pope Tawadros has made headlines for his role in revolutionary Egypt, Pope Francis has also become something of an international celebrity. Since becoming Pope in March, Pope Francis has brought what many consider to be a new dynamism to the Catholic Church. Shunning the traditional regal trappings of the papacy, Pope Francis's populist message, concern for the poor, and willingness to touch upon controversial issues facing the church (such as atheism, homosexuality and the role of women) has made him a popular leader. Pope Francis, who recently said he would consider a visit to Israel next year, has also continued the church's concern for the plight of Mideast Christians.

"Since being elevated to the papacy, Pope Francis has frequently spoken about issues of violence against Christians in the Middle East," USCCB's Colecchi told JNS.org.

Additionally, Pope Francis has vocally supported Christians in Syria who are trapped between opposing sides in that country's bloody civil war.

"My thoughts at this moment also go to the Christian communities who live in Syria and throughout the Middle East," Pope Francis said in remarks to the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Vatican's main Catholic charity. "The Church supports the members of these communities who today find themselves in special difficulty. These [communities] have the great task of continuing to offer a Christian presence in the place where they were born. And it is our task to ensure that this witness remain there. The participation of the entire Christian community to this important work of assistance and aid is imperative at this time."

Colecchi told JNS.org that both the Vatican and the USCCB have worked hard to protect Syrian Christians.

"The Holy See has repeatedly called for both sides [in the civil war] not to be armed. The USCCB has worked with the international community to get a ceasefire in Syria. A prolonged conflict does not serve to help all elements of the Syrian people," he said.

A number of Catholic aid organizations, including the Caritas Internationalis relief organization and Catholic Relief Services, are active throughout the Middle East, especially in aiding the refugees displaced by the Syrian conflict. Colecchi said these organizations provide aid to anyone regardless of their faith, not just to Christians.

"Ultimately the only way to preserve Christian presence is to build inclusive societies, with people who are respectful of all backgrounds and faiths," Colecchi said.


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