VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis on Friday (May 10) met with Pope Tawadros II, head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, an encounter that brought the number of popes within the Vatican walls to three this week.
Benedict XVI, the emeritus pope, returned to the Vatican on May 2, two months after his resignation, while Tawadros is only the second Coptic pope to visit the Vatican, after the historic visit of Pope Shenouda III to Pope Paul VI in 1973.
Tawadros – on his first foreign trip since he was elected in November – is staying at the Vatican’s guesthouse where Pope Francis is also living. Benedict is now living in a revamped convent a 5-minute walk away, but there were no plans for the two men to meet.
During his stay, the Coptic pope will meet with the heads of various Vatican departments as well as with the Coptic community in Italy.
Francis, 76, and Tawadros, 60, talked in private for 15 minutes and then held a joint prayer service in the Vatican’s Redemptoris Mater chapel. The Catholic pope was dressed in the traditional white cassock while the Coptic pope wore a long black robe. In their public remarks, they addressed each other as “Your Holiness.”
Copts, who trace the origin of their church to the evangelist Saint Mark in the first century, make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, while Catholics are a much smaller minority.
Since the Arab Spring revolution that overthrew Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, both Christian communities have been the target of increasing violence as Egypt’s political crisis fueled social instability.
In their public speeches, the two Christian leaders didn’t refer explicitly to the increasing number of sectarian attacks against Christian churches in Egypt.
But Francis did talk about an “ecumenism of suffering” among Christians. He added that in the “broader context of society and relations between Christians and non-Christians … from hard suffering can blossom forth forgiveness and reconciliation and peace.”
In the joint prayer service, the two popes prayed for “all countries and communities which are victims of conflict and violence” and for “peace and harmony without discrimination and injustice.”
Since his election last November, Tawadros has sought closer relations among Egypt’s Christians and has promoted the creation of the first Council of Christian Churches in the country.
In his speech on Friday, Tawadros invited Pope Francis to visit Egypt. But an official invitation from the Egyptian government would be required for the trip to take place.
The Coptic Church is the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Tawadros has harshly criticized the Muslim Brotherhood-led government that rules Egypt, accusing president Mohamad Morsi of neglecting the plight of the country’s religious minorities.