Pope Francis in Egypt in push for ‘fraternity’
Pope Francis landed in the Egyptian capital on April 28 to promote “unity and fraternity” with Muslims and Christians, who have suffered a series of jihadist attacks.
The visit is a “voyage of unity and fraternity,” the pontiff told reporters before he disembarked in Cairo airport to be greeted by Catholic priests and Egyptian Prime Minister Sharif Ismail.
It is “less than two days but very intense,” he said.
He was then taken by car to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in his Ittahidya presidential palace.
Francis will later meet Muslim and Christian leaders before visiting a church that had been bombed in December.
Security will be extremely tight with Egypt under a state of emergency following two bombings in Coptic churches earlier this month that killed 45 people.
Police and soldiers stood guard outside the Vatican residence in Cairo on April 28 and armored cars were stationed outside the Coptic Orthodox Saint Mark’s Cathedral, which Francis will also visit.
Despite the dangers, Francis is expected to conduct most of his business in a normal vehicle and electric pope mobile-style golf carts.
“Please pray for my journey tomorrow as a pilgrim of peace to Egypt,” Francis said on his Twitter account on the eve of his departure.
Francis will meet privately with the grand imam, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, an Islamic philosophy professor who visited the Vatican last year and is considered the highest religious authority in Sunni Islam.
He is then due to give a speech as a “simple participant” in an international conference for peace organized by Al-Azhar, a seat of learning for 1,000 years as well as a celebrated mosque.
Vatican dialogue with the Muslim world, a priority for this pope, was set back significantly when Francis’s predecessor Benedict XVI made a speech in 2006 in which he was seen as linking Islam to violence.
The now-retired German pontiff’s 2011 comments condemning an attack on a Coptic church compounded the chill, with Al-Azhar denouncing Benedict for meddling in Egypt’s affairs.
The head of world’s 1.3 billion Catholics will also meet Friday with the Coptic Pope Tawadros II.
The two men are due to walk together to the Coptic church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the heart of Cairo, which was hit by a bomb attack in December claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that killed 29 people.
The attack was the deadliest targeting the Coptic community since the 2011 suicide bombing that killed 23 people in Alexandria.
The pope will be joined at the conference by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the Orthodox world and a close ally.
On April 29, the pontiff will preside over a mass for the country’s small Catholic community, estimated to number around 272,000 spread across various rites.
Egypt’s Copts, who make up about 10 percent of the country’s population of 92 million, are the Middle East’s largest Christian minority and one of the oldest.
But they feel increasingly under pressure as a result of Islamist influence in many walks of Egyptian life with many of them saying they are treated like second-class citizens.