POPE FRANCIS was due to arrive in Egypt today for the start of a two-day visit, two weeks after bomb attacks against the country’s Coptic Christian minority on Palm Sunday (News, 13 April), in which 45 people were killed.
When the Pope arrives in Cairo today, he will meet the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University, Professor Mohamed Ahmed el-Tayeb, considered by many to be the highest authority in Sunni Islam, and the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
He will then visit the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, who was presiding at the oldest church in Egypt — St Mark’s, Alexandria — when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance as he went through a metal detector.
Pope Tawadros was unharmed, and, in a statement after the attacks, said: “These acts will not harm the unity and cohesion of the people.”
A second suicide bomber managed to get past security measures at Mar Girgis, also known as St George’s, in Tanta, north of Cairo, and detonated his explosives at the altar.
Speaking on the day of the attacks, Pope Francis prayed that God would “convert the hearts of people who sow terror, violence, and death”.
The slogan for the two-day pastoral visit is “The Pope of Peace in Egypt of Peace”, and Sister Angela Colombia, a Roman Catholic missionary in Egypt, told Vatican Radio that the Pope’s message would be: “We are children of the same God; so why not live in peace?”
Tomorrow, Pope Francis will preside at a mass in Cairo before having lunch with the country’s bishops. The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is also expected to join the gathering.
Roman Catholics number about 272,000 in Egypt: less than 0.5 per cent of the population. The Coptic community makes up about nine per cent of the country.
The visit will be the second time that a Pope has travelled to Egypt: Pope St John Paul II went to Cairo and Mount Sinai in 2000, two years after theological and academic dialogue between the Vatican and al-Azhar began in 1998.
The Palm Sunday bombings have both been claimed by Islamic State, who have also taken responsibility for an attack on the ancient Christian monastery of St Catherine, in the Sinai peninsula, on Wednesday of last week. One policeman was killed; four were injured. The attackers were forced to flee after the attack, which took place about half-a-mile from the monastery’s entrance.
The monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church, and was built in the sixth century.
Last month, the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, Bishop Angaelos, warned of the “deadly, daily” persecution of Christians by terrorists in Egypt (News, 3 March).
Since the killing of 29 people in a blast at St Peter’s Coptic Church, Cairo, in December (News, 12 December), more than 40 people had been killed before this weekend. Several hundred families fled Sinai last month after seven people were shot or beheaded in separate attacks by IS.