1. Signs that Egypt may have been a papal trip that mattered

By John L. Allen Jr., Crux, May 17, 2017

It’s still too early to judge in which category Pope Francis’s brief trip to Egypt in late April belongs, but recent days have brought intriguing signs that the pontiff’s message may have captured a moment.

The last time a pontiff delivered even a gentle rebuke to Egypt over the plight of its Christians, which came under Benedict XVI in 2011, the country’s political and religious establishment expressed outrage, freezing diplomatic relations and inter-faith dialogue with the Vatican. This time, however, Francis was celebrated as a moral hero, suggesting that something may be shifting.

At least two recent developments in Egypt lend credence to that perception.

The first is the opening of a new Coptic Christian church in the village of Ismailia, located in the province of Minya, dedicated to St. George and the Virgin Mary. One point that makes this case remarkable is how the church came to be.

The village of Ismailia is one-third Christian, two-thirds Muslim, and in the past it’s occasionally been marked by the same sectarian strife that’s engulfed other parts of the country. In keeping with Egyptian custom, it has a “reconciliation committee” that’s supposed to arbitrate disputes, though in many cases Christians have complained that the deck on these panels is stacked against their interests.

This time, however, the committee not only voted overwhelmingly to approve the construction of a new church, but the local Muslim population actually contributed a significant share of the funding to build it.

On another front, a well-known Islamic cleric, Sheikh Salem Abdul Jalil, who is also an undersecretary in the Egyptian ministry for “religious allocations,” recently went on television to denounce Christians and Jews as “infidels” and their doctrines as “corrupt.” In the past, that sort of rhetoric might have passed without comment or even been applauded, but not so this time around.

Instead, the minister for whom Jalil works, Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, swiftly put out a statement disowning the remarks and stating that Jalil would be banned from preaching in mosques.

To be clear, it’s not that Pope Francis’s brief two-day trip caused any of this. In truth, the basic force at play probably is that most ordinary Egyptians are simply sick of sectarian conflict, not to mention terrified that, unless checked, the sort of fundamentalist chaos that’s engulfed Iraq and Syria could strike them as well.

Nevertheless, the pope’s visit caught that mood, and, at least arguably, encouraged and augmented it. If Egypt does turn a corner in the fight against religious violence and extremism, Francis’s trip, and the message it delivered, could be remembered as an important part of that transition.


2. Religious freedom and Islamic terrorism

By Ambassador Francis Rooney, Crux, May 17, 2017

As discussed in the first article in this series, The role of religious freedom today, free expression of religion can stabilize civil societies and has helped defeat extremist ideologies.

Currently, much of Islamic society is stuck in the past, and uses an extreme interpretation of the Koran to justify barriers to the free expression of religion, such as blasphemy laws, and for violent religious persecution.

Promoting religious freedom, including the values of free expression and dialogue, will help undermine these blasphemy laws, hopefully leading to their elimination, and will allow Muslim leaders to freely speak out to reform Islam from within.

Blasphemy laws are used to persecute critics of Islam, whether moderate Muslims, Christians or Jews, and to attack so-called “non-believers,” thus forming an impenetrable barrier to any form of acceptance of other religious beliefs and contributing to the growth of Islamic extremism.

Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Yemen are among the Islamic countries with blasphemy laws. In Pakistan, any expression that degrades an aspect of Islam, however innocuous, such as reference to the Koran or the Prophet Muhammad, is punishable under law.

“Soft power” diplomacy, which advances values like religious freedom, tolerance and criticizes the concept of blasphemy in today’s world, can materially contribute to defeating radical Islamic terrorism and promoting religious freedom, which will help stabilize Islamic societies.

The United States should work alongside the governments of Muslim countries, the Catholic Church and non-governmental organizations to eliminate blasphemy laws and promote an environment where moderate Muslims can safely speak up.

Finally, the concept of the separation of church and state, rather than the theocracy now existing in many Muslim countries, and a twenty-first century interpretation of the Koran should be nurtured in the Muslim world.

Francis Rooney is the U.S. Representative for Florida’s 19th congressional district. He serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and previously served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.


3. A bigger, worse ‘global gag rule’: The Trump administration has expanded the funding affected by the so-called Mexico City policy.

By The Editorial Board, The Washington Post, May 17, 2017, Pg. A18

Under previous Republican presidents, the Mexico City policy, which withholds U.S. funding from foreign organizations that provide or promote abortion, applied only to the approximately $600 million the United States furnishes annually in family-planning funding. President Trump’s version affects almost all global health assistance — a full $8.8 billion.

The few exceptions to the policy, such as for humanitarian assistance and relief, are a thin silver lining in the cloud the United States has cast over the globe. The same goes for the State Department’s promise that the amount of global health assistance the United States provides will not change — only who receives it.


4. Making Skin Cells Into Babies? Trials in Mice Prompt What-Ifs

By Tamar Lewin, The New York Times, May 17, 2017, Pg. A1

Within a decade or two, researchers say, scientists will likely be able to create a baby from human skin cells that have been coaxed to grow into eggs and sperm and used to create embryos to implant in a womb.

The process, in vitro gametogenesis, or I.V.G., so far has been used only in mice. But stem cell biologists say it is only a matter of time before it could be used in human reproduction — opening up mind-boggling possibilities.

With I.V.G., two men could have a baby that was biologically related to both of them, by using skin cells from one to make an egg that would be fertilized by sperm from the other. Women with fertility problems could have eggs made from their skin cells, rather than go through the lengthy and expensive process of stimulating their ovaries to retrieve their eggs.

Three prominent academics in medicine and law sounded an alarm about the possible consequences in a paper published this year.

“I.V.G. may raise the specter of ‘embryo farming’ on a scale currently unimagined, which might exacerbate concerns about the devaluation of human life,” Dr. Eli Y. Adashi, a medical science professor at Brown; I. Glenn Cohen, a Harvard Law School professor; and Dr. George Q. Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, wrote in the journal Science Translational Medicine.