In the ramp-up to Pope Francis’ historic trip to Egypt, some wondered whether the pontiff would strike a conciliatory note, or push harder for Islamic leaders to refine doctrine to prevent violence. Coptic Christians called for Francis to call attention to their plight — and as Crux’s John Allen reports, he delivered a challenge to the imams at Al-Azhar University at today’s peace conference. Allen describes the speech as an indication that the pope wanted to “leave it all on the line,” and as close to Benedict XVI’s speech at Regensburg as anyone imagined he might get:

In effect, what Francis delivered on his first day of his brief stop in Egypt was almost his version of Pope Benedict XVI’s celebrated, and controversial, 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which Benedict stirred a firestorm of protest by quoting a line linking the Prophet Mohammed with violence.

Francis avoided the incendiary quotation, but nevertheless delivered a clear and powerful call to religious leaders – which, in the Egyptian context, unmistakably means Islam in the first place – to reject violence in the name of God.

“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 the name of God,” he said. “Together let us affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith, belief and hatred.”

The difference between this speech and Regensburg is significant enough, however. Benedict XVI explicitly connected Mohammed to violence in that speech, which touched off riots and demonstrations around the world, and which the pope emeritus had to partially retract. Francis took more care in avoiding any mention of religious figures in this argument (save one), which hopefully will allow for a more careful — if still uncomfortable — reading of his words.

Still, as Allen says, the context here is unmistakable. The Vatican e-mailed the prepared speech, and this passage citing Moses clearly intended to remind those religious leaders of their responsibilities in rejecting violence:

An education in respectful openness and sincere dialogue with others, recognizing their rights and basic freedoms, particularly religious freedom, represents the best way to build the future together, to be builders of civility. For the only alternative to the civility of encounter is the incivility of conflict. To counter effectively the barbarity of those who foment hatred and violence, we need to accompany young people, helping them on the path to maturity and teaching them to respond to the incendiary logic of evil by patiently working for the growth of goodness. In this way, young people, like well-planted trees, can be firmly rooted in the soil of history, and, growing heavenward in one another’s company, can daily turn the polluted air of hatred into the oxygen of fraternity. …

To return to the image of Mount Sinai, I would like to mention the commandments that were promulgated there, even before they were sculpted on tablets of stone.4 At the centre of this “decalogue”, there resounds, addressed to each individual and to people of all ages, the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex 20:13). God, the lover of life, never ceases to love man, and so he exhorts us to reject the way of violence as the necessary condition for every earthly “covenant”. Above all and especially in our day, the religions are called to respect this imperative, since, for all our need of the Absolute, it is essential that we reject any “absolutizing” that would justify violence. For violence is the negation of every authentic religious expression.

As religious leaders, we are called, therefore, to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the “absolutizing” of selfishness than on authentic openness to the Absolute. We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God: Holy is his name, he is the God of peace, God salaam.5 alone, therefore, is holy and no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God, for it would profane his Name.

Together, in the land where heaven and earth meet, this land of covenants between peoples and believers, 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. Together let us affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith, belief and hatred. Together let us declare the sacredness of every human life against every form of violence, whether physical, social, educational or psychological. Unless it is born of a sincere heart and authentic love towards the Merciful God, faith is no more than a conventional or social construct that does not liberate man, but crushes him. Let us say together: the more we grow in the love of God, the more we grow in the love of our neighbour.

That message will not go unnoticed, but it’s phrased carefully enough to keep it from becoming too incendiary. In remarks outside of the prepared speech, Francis also explicitly mentioned the victims of the Palm Sunday bombings and other violence directed at Christians in Egypt:

In a separate article at Crux, Allen calls this “a shot in the arm to Egypt’s persecuted Christians“:

On Friday afternoon, in an address to political and civil authorities in the world’s sixth most populous Muslim nation, Francis made an unmistakable reference to the gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to the fate of Egypt’s Christian minority, which represents somewhere between ten and twenty percent of the national population.

“I think in a particular way of all those individuals who in recent years have given their lives to protect your country: young people, members of the armed forces and police, Coptic citizens and all those nameless victims of various forms of terrorist extremism,” the pope said. …

In that context, Pope Francis on Friday sought to deliver the Christian community a shot in the arm, recognizing the Coptic, Greek, Byzantine, Armenian and Protestant Christian churches of Egypt.

“Your presence in this, your country, is not new or accidental, but ancient and an inseparable part of the history of Egypt.  You are an integral part of this country, and over the course of the centuries you have developed a sort of unique rapport, a particular symbiosis, which can serve as an example to other nations,” he said, drawing strong applause.

Francis also declared that “Islam is not a religion of terrorism,” an argument that the grand imam of Al-Azhar had already tried to pre-empt in his opening remarks. Shaykh Ahmad Al-Tayeb drew equivalences to America’s use of atomic weapons in Japan and Jews “occupying lands and extirpating millions” in Israel, and saying that Islam does not lay blame for that on their religion:

We should not hold religion accountable for the crimes of any small group of followers. For example, Islam is not a religion of terrorism for a group of followers carelessly expedites to manipulate with Islamic texts and misinterpret them ignorantly. Then, they shed blood, kill people, and spread destruction. Unfortunately, they find available sources of finance, weapons, and training. Likewise, Christianity is not a religion of terrorism just because a group of its followers carries the cross and decimates people without distinction between men, women, children, fighters, and captives.

Likewise, Judaism is not a religion of terrorism just because a group of its followers employs the teachings of Moses, God forbids, occupying lands and extirpating millions of the indigenous defenseless civilian citizens of the Palestinian people, who have the original rights to this land. Furthermore, it is not fair to say that the European civilization is a civilization of terrorism because two world wars broke out in Europe leaving behind more than seventy millions of deaths. The same goes true for the American civilization whose atom bombings destroyed everything on earth in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If we open doors for accusations as opened against Islam, no religion, regime, civilization, or history would stand innocent from violence and terrorism.

Er … that’s quite a stretch from the grand imam in almost all instances. In Israel, Jews preceded Arabs as the “indigenous” people of the region, certainly long before Islam arrived on the scene. The other cases were wars between nations, which weren’t fought on any side over religious conflicts (at least not in the two wars that al-Tayeb cites). He seems to have skipped over the fact that radical Islamic terrorists explicitly conduct their attacks on civilians in the name of one particular religion, and are assisted in making that case in large part because of imams who push the violent interpretation of jihad from their mosques and universities.

Nevertheless, al-Tayeb thanked Pope Francis before his remarks for defending their religion:

Dear Pope, we deeply appreciate your fair declaration in support of the truth and defense of Islam against the accusation of violence and terrorism. We feel how you and all attending notable fathers of eastern and western churches are keen to respect religious beliefs and symbols and safeguard them from any offenses, standing against those who employ such offenses to foment conflicts among the believers. Al-Azhar is determined to work and cooperate for the calls of establishing coexistence, reviving dialogue, respecting all human beliefs, and protecting them.

Read into that what you might, but it sounds as if the imams of Al-Azhar will be listening intently for all the affirmations, and become a little more deaf when it comes to everything else Francis said. Nevertheless, Francis stood up and delivered a tough speech that will be difficult for them to ignore, and which the government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will no doubt amplify.