Vatican City, May 3, 2017 / 04:30 am (CNA/EWTN News).- On Wednesday Pope Francis recalled his recent visit to Egypt, saying that given its rich biblical and cultural history, the country is a sign of hope, and has a special role to play in brokering peace in the Middle East.

“Egypt for us was a sign of hope, of refuge and of help,” the Pope said during his May 3 general audience. He noted how in scripture Jacob and his sons traveled to the region when it was in famine, and later Jesus himself also found refuge there from Herod. “So recounting this trip enters on the path of recounting hope,” he said, adding that for Christians, “Egypt has the sense of speaking about hope, whether in history or today, and of this brotherhood that I am telling you about.”

Pope Francis spoke just days after returning from his April 28-29 visit to Egypt, which was made largely as the result of a recent thawing in relations between the Vatican and the prestigious al-Azhar University, one of the highest institutional authorities in Sunni Islam, which had been strained since 2011.

The visit also took place in wake of increasing attacks on Egypt’s Coptic community, and as such was meant to offer support for local Christians as well as cement Catholic-Muslim relations. During his visit, Pope Francis met with the Great Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed Mohamed al-Tayyeb, at the al-Azhar University, where he also spoke to the International Conference for Peace. He then met with Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and civil authorities before sharing a moment of prayer with Coptic Orthodox Patriarch Tawadros II. He also spent time with Egypt’s Christian community, celebrating Mass for Catholics on the second and final day of his trip, and meeting with the country’s priests, religious and seminarians.

In his general audience address, the Pope thanked Egypt for “the truly warm welcome” he was given, saying President el-Sisi and the Egyptian authorities made “an extraordinary commitment so this event could take place in the best of ways.” The goal, he said, was for the visit to be “a sign of peace for Egypt and for that entire region, which unfortunately suffers from conflicts and terrorism.”

Francis told pilgrims that his visit to the al-Azhar University had the “double horizon” of promoting dialogue between Christians and Muslims, and of promoting peace on a global level. “In this context, I offered a reflection that valued the history of Egypt as a land of civilization and alliance,” he said, explaining that Egypt is widely considered to be “synonymous with ancient civilization and with treasures of art and knowledge.”

This serves as a reminder “that peace is built through education, the formation of wisdom, of a humanism which includes as the religious dimension, the relationship with God, as an integral part,” he said, pointing to the speech given by al-Tayyeb. “Peace is also built starting from the alliance between God and man, founded on the alliance between men,” he said, explaining that this is a law which can be summed up in the two commandments of love of God and neighbor.

Francis then said this same foundation is also the basis of building “the social and civic order, in which all citizens of every culture, origin and religion are called to participate.” Because of “the great historic and religious patrimony” of Egypt and its role in the Middle East, the country has “a peculiar task on the path toward a stable and lasting peace, which does not rely on the law of force, but the force of the law.”

Turning to his encounter with Egypt’s Christian community, the Pope said that Christians in Egypt, as in every other nation, “are called to be the leaven of brotherhood,” which is only possible if they are in communion with Christ. Recalling how he signed a joint-declaration with Patriarch Tawadros, Francis said the two renewed their commitment to finding a shared baptism, and prayed together for the “the martyrs” who have died in recent attacks on the Coptic community.

“Their blood fertilized that ecumenical encounter,” he said, noting that in addition to himself and Tawadros, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople was also present.  

Francis then pointed to the Mass he celebrated with Egyptian Catholics, calling it a celebration of “faith and fraternity,” in which the presence of the Risen Lord was truly felt. He also recalled his meeting with the priests, religious and seminarians of Egypt, saying he saw in them “the beauty of the Church in Egypt,” and could pray with them for all Christians in the Middle East, that “they be salt and light in that land, in the midst of that people.”

Speaking off-the-cuff, he noted that Egypt has “a lot of seminarians,” which he said is “a consolation.” He closed by offering his thanks and praying that the Holy Family of Nazareth, who “emigrated on the banks of the Nile to avoid the violence of Herod,” would always bless and protect the Egyptian people, “and guide them on the path of prosperity, fraternity and peace.”