Pope brings message of peace amid crackdown

AP Photo POPE FRANCIS SHAKES hands with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi, in Cairo, Friday. Pope Francis is in Egypt for a two-day trip aimed at presenting a united Christian-Muslim front that repudiates violence committed in God's name.

CAIRO (AP) — Pope Francis demanded that Egypt’s Muslim leaders teach a rejection of violence in God’s name during a delicate visit Friday to the Arab world’s most populous country, and he strongly backed its uncompromising crackdown on political Islam and militancy.

Brushing off security concerns after a series of attacks by Islamic militants on Egypt’s Coptic Christians, Francis rode through Cairo in a simple blue Fiat with his window rolled down — not the armored “popemobiles” of his predecessors.

And at every stop on his first day, he issued variations on the same hard-hitting theme: “No civilized society can be built without repudiating every ideology of evil, violence and extremism that presumes to suppress others and to annihilate diversity by manipulating and profaning the sacred name of God.”

Francis strongly backed the government’s response to the growing insurgency led by a local affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group, saying Egypt had a unique role in forging peace in the region and in “vanquishing all violence and terrorism.”

His main event was a landmark visit to Cairo’s Al-Azhar, the revered, 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Islam learning that trains clerics and scholars from around the world.

There, he warmly embraced Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Al-Azhar’s grand imam who hosted the pope and other senior Muslim and Christian leaders, students and scholars at a peace conference in a hall featuring a mock-up of the famous Al-Azhar mosque, complete with faux windows and flooded with purple lights.

Francis reminded the crowd that Egypt’s ancient civilization valued the quest for knowledge and open-minded education, saying a similar commitment is needed today to combat the “barbarity” of religious extremism.

While Al-Azhar has strongly condemned Islamic extremism, Egypt’s pro-government media has accused its leadership of failing to do enough to reform religious discourse and purge canonical books of outdated teachings and hatred for non-Muslims.

“As religious leaders, we are called to unmask violence that masquerades as purported sanctity,” Francis said to applause. “Let us say once more a firm and clear ‘No’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God.”

Religious teachers, in particular, must teach the young to “respond to the incendiary logic of evil by patiently working for the growth of goodness,” he said.

El-Tayeb thanked Francis for what he called his “fair” comments against charges of terror and violence leveled against Muslims and Islam.

“We need to cleanse religions from wrong notions, false piety and fraudulent implementations which stoke conflicts and incite hatred and violence,” he said.

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