Coptic Orthodox leader Tawadros II arrives in Rome on Thursday for a historic four-day visit to meet Pope Francis — a sign of growing rapprochement between the Vatican and the Orthodox world.
The meeting on Friday will be the first between an Egyptian patriarch of Alexandria and a head of the Roman Catholic Church since 1973 when pope Paul VI met with Tawadros’ predecessor Shenouda III.
The visit will be the high-point of a tour of Europe by Tawadros, who was elected in November 2012 as leader of a Christian Church faced with the rise of radical Islam and growing emigration.
Copts account for up to 10 percent of the population in Egypt, where tensions and clashes with the majority Muslim population have increased since the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011.
Tawadros will stay until Sunday and visit various Vatican departments including one dealing with the Eastern Christian churches and another charged with promoting greater Christian unity.
The Vatican said he would also visit the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul and meet with members of the Coptic community in Rome.
The visit is only the latest sign of growing dialogue after the patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, became the first Orthodox spiritual leader to attend a papal inauguration in March.
The Catholic and Orthodox churches separated in 1054.
Francis, formerly the archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Bergoglio, has indicated he wants to promote greater dialogue with other Christian denominations as well as with Jews and Muslims.
Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI committed a series of gaffes on inter-religious relations early in his pontificate and his attempts at boosting dialogue were seen as unsuccessful.
Benedict’s comments in support of Copts following an outbreak of violence in Egypt were criticized by Sunni Muslim leaders in Cairo, who suspended dialogue with the Vatican in retaliation.
Tawadros is to take part on Thursday in a ceremony to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the meeting between Shenouda III and Paul VI, which inaugurated dialogue between the two churches.
Pope John Paul II also visited Shenouda in 2000.
Another sign of more recent rapprochement is the fact that Tawadros last month attended the inauguration of the new Coptic Catholic patriarch, Ibrahim Sidrak, an unprecedented gesture.
Tawadros last month accused Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi of “negligence” over the worst inter-religious clashes since Morsi came to power in June.
Tawadros said tensions had reached a “level of chaos”, prompting Morsi to call on him to condemn the violence.
Copts have also been very critical of a new constitution seen as being favorable to Islamists.