“Religious leaders must denounce violations of human rights and expose attempts to justify violence and hatred in the name of God.”

That was Pope Francis’ message on Friday at the International Peace Conference taking place at the Al-Azhar conference centre in Cairo. The Pope’s words came at the start of his two day trip to Egypt, following a courtesy visit to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.

After listening to an opening address by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheik Ahmad Al-Tayeb, the Pope spoke of Egypt’s “inestimable cultural heritage”, saying such wisdom and open-mindedness is urgently needed today to ensure peace for present and future generations.

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Calling for respectful interreligious dialogue, Pope Francis said the only alternative to a culture of civilized encounter is “the incivility of conflict”. Recalling the visit of St Francis to the Sultan in Egypt eight centuries ago, he called for dialogue based on sincerity and the courage to accept differences.

Echoing the words of Sheik Al-Tayeb, Pope Francis also reiterated his appeal for an end to the arms trade, saying that if weapons are produced and sold, “soon or later they will be used”. Only by bringing to light “the murky manoeuvrings that feed the cancer of war can its real causes be prevented”, he said.

The Pope stressed the importance of working to eliminate poverty and to combat the current rise of populism that does not promote stability and peace. Every unilateral action that does not promote constructive and shared solutions, he warned, is “a gift to the proponents of radicalism and violence”. What our world needs, he said, is peacemakers, not fomenters of conflict; firefighters, not arsonists; preachers of reconciliation, not instigators of destruction”.