Going to the Other Side: Study Trip in Egypt for the Franciscans of France

In this year when the Franciscan family celebrates the spirit of openness and encounter on the part of Francis of Assisi, the Province of Blessed John Duns Scotus partnered with the Bishops’ Conference of France and their National Organization for Relations with Muslims (Service national pour les relations avec les musulmans) to have a study trip in Egypt in honor of the 1219 meeting between St. Francis and Sultan al-Kamil. Taking place between November 21st and December 1st 2019, this event involved around 40 people—members of the Franciscan family as well as people engaged in interreligious dialogue within their dioceses, parishes, or other associations—who departed in order to uncover the state of Muslim-Christian dialogue in Egypt today.

The study trip was led by Bishop Rubén Tierrablanca González, OFM (Apostolic Vicar of Istanbul), Fr. Vincent Feroldi (Director of the National Organization for Relations with Muslims), Fr. Stéphane Delavelle, OFM (member of the Franciscan community in Meknes, Morocco), and Fr. Dominique Joly, OFM (Director of Pèlerinages Franciscains). At its heart, the goal of the trip was to go and listen to the experience of our brothers and sisters in Egypt. To this end, our group was welcomed by the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy land who live at the Muski friary and by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary who are present in the Zamalek neighborhood of Cairo. After seeing the Franciscan Center for Eastern Studies, we also visited the friars of the Egyptian Province of the Holy Family and the incredible orphanage founded by them over 70 years ago in Cairo’s Mokattam neighborhood.

During the day-long celebration of the 800th anniversary of the encounter at Damietta, the group had the pleasure of attending a play depicting the encounter between Francis and the Sultan, held at the school of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. These sisters lead a school of 1000 students, both Christian and Muslim, being one of 175 Catholic schools within the country. In the presence of Mr. François Pugeaut, General Consul of France in Cairo, and Mrs. Manal Awad Mikhail, the first female Christian governor of the region of Damietta, we commemorated the continuing importance of the 1219 encounter for our world today.

Some of the rich exchanges had by our group included one with the members of the Focolare movement in Alexandria and another with the Dominican friars at the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies. Studying Arabic Islam and its original sources with a view to fostering a rich academic and interreligious dialogue, the latter group works in close connection with Al-Azhar University and supports young Muslim researchers who wish to deepen their understanding of their own texts by using modern methodologies and tools. Indeed, this discussion helped us to identify the challenges which Islam itself faces today.

The group also experienced an encounter with the other through the time spent with our brothers and sisters of the Coptic-Orthodox Church, particularly the private audience that was so kindly granted by Patriarch Tawadros II and then also by Bishop Anba Thomas, bishop of El-Qussia and Mair Diocese. Theirs is the heritage of a church founded by St. Mark and the Desert Fathers, one which they opened up to us. In this time of Advent and with the intercession of the Holy Family who accompanied us throughout this voyage, we are grateful for all the things that allowed us to go deeper into the encounter between St. Francis and Sultan Malik al-Kamil.

In the words which Friar Stéphane Delavelle used to close the trip, “The ‘encounter’ is, above all, the fruit of a friendship and a form of expatriation. We go out of ourselves to enter anew into the land of another, their history, their culture, their upbringing… Often our desire to encounter the other is suffocated by our desire to convince them. But if we do not take the risk of receiving the other as they are and not making a push, with the conviction that Jesus Christ is strong enough in us… only then will we be able to allow ourselves to be transformed by this encounter and to go even more deeply into our own faith. Dialogue is indispensable because ‘God has started a conversation with the world,’ as Paul VI said. Christ took the first step and, in turn, invites us to go towards the other as well. This desire for encounter and for dialogue is a part of our Christian identity.”

Notably, this study trip included the presence of four journalists from the French Catholic television network KTO. For those who speak French, the documentary that they produced (55 minutes in length) can be found here: www.youtube.com

Emilie Rey
Commission du Jubilé Damiette 2019 en France
(Commission for the 2019 Celebration of Damiette in France)