Pope Francis urged Muslim leaders to renounce “violence and vengeance” carried out in the name of religion on Friday, during a visit to Egypt that comes amid a bloody campaign by extremists from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) to purge the country of Christians.
“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,” the Pope said in an address to a peace conference.
“Together let us affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith, belief and hatred,” he said.
The two-day visit to Cairo is intended to strengthen inter-faith dialogue with Muslim leaders and offer solidarity and condolences to Egypt’s beleaguered Coptic Christian minority.
Religious leaders of all faiths must “counter effectively the barbarity of those who foment hatred and violence” and “respond to the incendiary logic of evil,” the Pope said.
Earlier this month, Isil terrorists attacked a police checkpoint near the ancient St Catherine’s Monastery, at the foot of Mount Sinai in the Sinai Desert.
The Pope made specific reference to Mount Sinai in his address, invoking one of the Ten Commandments passed down to Moses – “Thou shalt not kill”.
He delivered his speech at Al-Azhar University, a 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni scholarship in the Egyptian capital.
Critics have accused the university of propagating a rigid, medieval version of Islam that foments extremism and sanctions prejudice towards religious minorities and women.
Although revered across the Muslim world, the university is accused of refusing to update centuries-old teachings and failing to counter militant Islamic thought that has spawned extremist groups such as IS.
The terrorist group claimed responsibility for suicide bomber attacks on two Coptic churches in Cairo on Palm Sunday which killed 45 people and injured dozens of others.
Some of the texts studied by Sunni scholars at the university teach that Muslims should not allow “infidels” to build churches and that Christians should be forced to pay a special tax or face death.
The university rejects allegations that it promotes intolerance and its Grand Imam, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, is viewed as a moderate who has repeatedly denounced terrorism.
On arriving in Cairo, the Pope had a reception with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s president.
He was driven through the streets in a small blue Fiat with the window wound down, having rejected the offer of a bullet-proof Pope-mobile.
Later he went to St Peter’s Church in central Cairo, which was hit by a suicide bombing in December that killed 30 people, and prayed for the victims.
The Latin American pontiff, who has made dialogue with Islam one of the themes of his four-year papacy, will celebrate an open-air Mass in a military arena on Saturday.