CAIRO • Pope Francis started his two-day visit to Cairo yesterday, hoping to mend ties with Islamic religious leaders as Egypt's ancient Christian community faces unprecedented pressure from ISIS militants who have threatened to wipe it out.
The 80-year-old pontiff touched down at Cairo airport before he was ushered in a car to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who welcomed him with a military brass band and a line-up of priests.
"It's a journey of unity and fraternity. Less than two days but very intense," he said of the 27-hour trip before disembarking. He was later scheduled to meet Muslim and Christian leaders before visiting a church that was bombed in December.
In an address to the Egyptian people, the Pope 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 in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) 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.
Attacks by ISIS militants and sectarian wars in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere are devastating Christian populations and jeopardising their future in the Middle East, the birthplace of Jesus and home to the earliest churches.
Despite the security threat hanging over his visit, the Pope will use an ordinary car, continuing his practice of shunning armoured limousines in order 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, a spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church.
"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," he added.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE