Pope Francis on Friday paid tribute to victims of recent suicide bombings at Coptic churches in Egypt.
“To the members of their families, and to all of Egypt, I offer my heartfelt condolences.
“I offer my prayers that the Lord will grant speedy healing to the injured,” he said in a ceremony at Cairo in the presence of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.
In recent months, Egypt’s Christian minority has been the target of attacks mostly claimed by the Islamic State extremist militia
Earlier, the Pope at a peace conference at Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, Al-Azhar, urged leaders of all faiths to unite in renouncing religious extremism and counter the “barbarity of those who foment hatred and violence”.
“Let us say once more a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God.
“Together let us affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith, belief and hatred,” he said at the 1,000-year-old Sunni Muslim seat of learning.
Francis’s trip, aimed at improving ties between Muslims and Roman Catholics, comes three weeks after Islamic State suicide bombers killed at least 45 people in two Egyptian churches.
Francis headed straight to meet Egyptian President, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, after landing in Cairo, driving through heavily guarded streets but eschewing an armoured motorcade and instead using a normal car with his window wound down.
“Pope of Peace in Egypt of Peace,” read posters plastered along the road leading from the airport to central Cairo.
He is due to give three speeches and will celebrate an open air Mass on Saturday at a military arena.
His visit comes at a time of high tensions in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation.
Besides the Palm Sunday bombings, Islamist militants on Thursday attacked a police checkpoint close to St. Catherine’s monastery at Mount Sinai.
The pope revered to Mount Sinai, where the Prophet Moses received the 10 biblical commandments, and specifically invoked the famed injunction “thou shalt not kill”.
He has repeatedly said that Christian-Muslim dialogue was the only way to overcome Islamist militants who had persecuted Christians and driven them from their 2,000-year-old communities in Iraq and Syria.
His message carried special resonance inside Al-Azhar, where he is a guest of its Grand Imam, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, widely considered among the most moderate clerics in Egypt.
In his speech, Tayeb said militants had “carelessly” and “ignorantly” misinterpreted religious texts.
“Islam is not a religion of terrorism,” he said.
Tayeb has faced criticism from within Egypt’s parliament and sections of the media, who say Al-Azhar is an “ossifie”.
He stressed the importance of strong education, saying “to counter effectively the barbarity of those who foment hatred and violence, we need to accompany young people,” he said.
Tayeb visited the Vatican in 2016, restoring relations with the Roman Catholic Church after they had been cut in 2011 in protest.
Egyptian Muslim leaders said the protest were repeated insults directed at Islam by Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict.
The pope has been applauded by moderate Muslims for his efforts to improve relations.
He has washed the feet of Muslims during Holy Week ceremonies in 2016 and brought Syrian Muslim refugees back to Italy with him from a Greek migrant centre.
His visit to Cairo also aimed at bolstering sometimes frosty relations with Coptic churches.
He will be meeting with Pope Tawadros II, Head of the Coptic Orthodox Church who narrowly escaped a church bombing in Alexandria this month.
He will also go to Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral to pray for the 28 people killed in a Christmas season blast in 2016 and lay flowers in their memory.
Copts represent about 10 per cent of Egypt’s 92 million populations. (dpa/NAN)