Pope Francis will be visiting Cairo, Egypt, on Friday to give comfort to Christians who are suffering persecution from Islamic Jihadists in the country. Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt comes weeks after ISIS killed at least 45 people at two Coptic churches in two separate suicide attacks, Ahram Online reports.
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The Egyptian government has been tightening security in the Zamalek district in preparation for the pope’s visit, ABC News reported. Police have been conducting door-to-door searches in the neighborhood in repeated security sweeps. Parking has been prohibited in major streets around the area. Shop owners were told to close up shop starting Friday until the pope’s visit comes to an end.
An official who requested anonymity told Associated Press that the Cairo police have been doing a thorough search of the area for explosives. The official wished not to be identified because he was not authorized to provide details to the media.
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Vatican spokesperson Greg Burke downplayed security fears surrounding Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt, saying that the Pontiff won’t be using an armored car even after the twin Palm Sunday church bombings that killed dozens of people.
Please pray for my journey tomorrow as a pilgrim of peace to Egypt.
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“We’re in the world of ‘new normal,'” Burke said. “But we go forward with serenity.”
The two-day trip will be highlighted by the pope’s visit to the Al-Azhar mosque on Friday. Al-Azhar, built 1,000 years ago, was the first mosque established in Cairo. Since then, it was regarded as a special seat of learning in Sunni Islam. There, the Pope will privately meet with grand imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb before speaking at the peace conference organized by the mosque. The pope will end the day by meeting Pope Tawadros II, an escapee from one of the Palm Sunday bombings weeks ago.
“It’s an encounter of consolation, promotion and communion with the small Catholic community,” said Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the current Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches in the Roman Curia, who will be joining Francis on his Egypt trip. “But it’s of great importance from an ecumenical point of view. And, of course, it is very important for dialogue with Islam, for the meeting with the sheikh of Al Ahzar.”
Amid rising tensions between Christians and Muslims, Francis has said that the only way to overcome Islamic terrorism is to foster a Christian-Muslim dialogue. Even as he condemned the terrorist attacks against Christians, Pope Francis said he is coming to visit Egypt as a messenger of peace, which he insists is much-needed at a time when the world is “torn by blind violence.”
Some of Francis’s fellow Jesuits, however, criticized the pope’s call for dialogue and tolerance, insisting that Islam’s failure to modernize bolsters its status as “a religion of the sword.” Some Egyptian Christians agree with them.
“He has been saying the same words for years, which is all about love and tolerance, but political Islam ruined the world and the most important change should come from Al-Azhar,” said John, a 24-year-old Coptic Christian student from Cairo, who refused to give his last name for fear of reprisals.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who will also be meeting the pope on Friday, gave a historic speech at Al-Azhar University in January 2015. el-Sisi condemned Islamic violence in his speech and subtly suggested that certain verses in the Quran could be promoting violence and might need to be revised. This speech has been met with backlash from the Muslim community. Mohie Eddin Affifi, an al-Azhar official, came to el-Sisi’s defense, saying that the president didn’t mean to suggest changing the texts.
“What the president meant is that we need a contemporary reading for religious texts to deal with our contemporary reality,” Affifi said.
The only public mass Pope Francis will hold during his two-day visit to Egypt will take place in a stadium heavily guarded by the Egyptian military.
[Featured Image by Buda Mendes/Getty Images]