CAIRO: Pope Francis led a jubilant mass for thousands of Egyptian Catholics on Saturday during a visit to support the country’s embattled Christian minority and promote dialogue with Muslims.
The visit, coming after the Islamic State group killed dozens of worshippers in three Egyptian church bombings in December and April, provided the beleaguered Christians with an occasion to celebrate.
A crowd of about 15,000 people cheered and released yellow and white balloons with Francis, flanked by security, circling the Cairo stadium on a golf cart and waving to the crowds as a chorus sang a joyous hymn.
The smiling pontiff was then greeted by a group of children wearing pharaonic head dresses.
For the liturgy, Francis first kissed an altar then listened to passages from the Acts of Apostles, which tells the story of the church’s founding, before delivering a sermon on faith, charity and tolerance.
“True faith… moves our heart to love everyone… It makes us see the other not as an enemy to be overcome but a brother and sister to be loved,” he said.
The mass came on the second and last day of Francis’s visit, which saw him plead for tolerance and peace on Friday as he visited a Coptic church bombed by the Islamic State group (IS) in December.
The spiritual leader of the world’s almost 1.3 billion Catholics also became the first pope to visit the headquarters of the grand imam of Al-Azhar, one of the Muslim world’s leading religious authorities.
At the stadium, worshippers, old and young, nuns and priests, had been bussed in under tight security, with the country under a state of emergency following the church bombings.
“We wanted to see the pope and show him that there is no problem here and that the situation is safe. We feel proud that he is in Egypt. It’s a message that we are still standing on our feet,” said Kanzi Beblawi, a 33-year-old woman, as she waited to board a bus.
Some waved Egyptian flags and released balloons the colour of the Vatican flag and others tied together to form a rosary that rose to the sky.
The event brings together members of all Catholic rites in the country — Coptic, Armenian, Maronite and Melkite.
Egypt’s Catholic community is estimated at about 272,000.
The stadium chosen for the mass is on Cairo’s outskirts and easier to secure, but in 2015 it witnessed clashes between football fans and a stampede that killed 19 people.
Following the mass Francis is scheduled to lunch with Egyptian bishops. He will also meet seminarians before wrapping up his 27-hour visit in the afternoon.
His entire tightly scheduled trip was heavily secured as he travelled from one engagement to another in a closed car.
IS has threatened further attacks after the suicide bombings that killed 29 people in Cairo in December, and 45 people north of the capital earlier this month.
On Friday, the 80-year-old pontiff denounced violence and “demagogic” populism in an address to a Muslim-Christian conference.
‘Peace is holy’
“Peace alone… is holy and no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God, for it would profane his name,” Francis said.
He criticised what he called “demagogic forms of populism… on the rise”, saying they were unhelpful to peace.
Christians, who make up around 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 92 million, have long complained of marginalisation in the Muslim-majority country.
Egypt has the largest Christian community of the Middle East.
While most of Egypt’s Christians are Coptic Orthodox, Roman Catholics have also lived in the country since the fifth century.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Catholic orders in Egypt — Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits — developed a network of schools, hospitals and charitable activities.
The papacy formally and legally established the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate in the 19th century.
Francis’s visit comes 17 years after Pope John Paul II made a trip to the Arab world’s most populous nation.
On Friday, Francis met Coptic Orthodox patriarch Pope Tawadros II, and both attended an emotional mass at the church hit in the December suicide bombing.
They prayed at a makeshift shrine for its victims, who were mostly women.
They also signed a joint declaration pledging to “strive for serenity and concord through a peaceful co-existence of Christians and Muslims”.
Earlier in the day, the pope met Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of the Al-Azhar institution.