Pope Francis arrives in Cairo on Friday hoping to develop ties with Islamic religious leaders just as Egypt’s ancient Christian community faces unprecedented pressure from Islamic State militants who have threatened to wipe it out.
In an address to the Egyptian people this week, Francis spoke of his hope that his visit would help bring peace and encourage dialogue and reconciliation with the Islamic world.
But it comes at a painful time for Egypt’s Copts, the Middle East’s largest Christian community; three weeks after Islamic State suicide bombers killed 45 people in twin church bombings.
Those attacks followed a cathedral bombing that killed 28 people in December and a spree of murders that has forced hundreds of Christians to flee North Sinai, where the group is most active.
Islamic State attacks and sectarian wars in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere are devastating Christian populations and jeopardizing their future in the Middle East, the birthplace of Jesus and home to the earliest churches.
Despite the security threat hanging over Francis’ visit, the pope will use an ordinary car during his 27 hours in Cairo, continuing his practice of shunning armored limousines to be closer to people.
Streets near the Vatican embassy in Cairo and other sites have been cleared of cars and blocked off, and pedestrians have not been allowed to linger. “After all the pain we have experienced … we are satisfied and confident that the state is taking strong security measures to prevent terrorism and protect churches,” said Father Boulos Halim, spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox church to which the majority of Egypt’s Christians belong.
“It’s in the state’s interests to protect its nationals and the Copts are not an independent people, they are part and parcel of the nation itself.”