Pope Francis draws 15,000 to open-air mass in Egypt weeks after deadly attacks on country's churches
By MORGAN WINSOR TERRY MORAN CLARK BENTSON
Pope Francis drew a crowd of 15,000 to an open-air Mass in Egypt on his last day visiting the overwhelmingly Muslim nation, where Christians and their churches have been the target of recent attacks by Islamic militants.
Francis led the Mass on Saturday in Cairo at the country’s Air Defense Stadium, which has a capacity of 25,000. In his homily, Francis urged attendees to be good to their fellow Egyptians and not be hypocritical in their faith, saying “the only fanaticism believers can have is that of charity.”
It was Francis’ first papal visit to Egypt, where Catholics haven’t seen a pope on their soil since St. John Paul II visited in 2000.
Despite security concerns, the Catholic pontiff arrived at the military-run sports stadium in a blue Fiat, with his window rolled down. He then hopped into an open-topped golf cart and zoomed around to greet the crowd before the start of the mass.
Onlookers cheered him wildly, waving Holy See and Egyptian flags and swaying to the music of hymns.
Although Francis has eschewed the bullet-proof “pope-mobile” used by his predecessors on foreign trips, security was exceptionally tight around the stadium, with armed guards standing watch and helicopters hovering overhead.
Catholics constitute less than 1 percent of Egypt’s 92 million people. Copts are the largest Christian community, still only representing 10 percent of the majority-Muslim nation.
Egypt’s Coptic Christians have repeatedly been targeted in recent deadly attacks, including ones carried out by ISIS. Most recently, ISIS claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings during church services in the northern cities of Tanta and Alexandria on Palm Sunday earlier this month. The double bombings, which killed at least 45 people, led Egypt’s president to declare a three-month state of emergency.
Attacks against Copts in the northern part of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the epicenter of the jihadist group’s brutal insurgency, have forced hundreds of families to flee the region and seek refuge elsewhere in the country.
At a cafe in Cairo, a 47-year-old Christian woman who identified herself as Nermine told ABC News it sent a strong message to all Egyptians that Francis “kept his promise” and still visited the country, despite the recent church bombings. She said the attacks haven’t stopped her from going to church.
“We need to learn and we need to move forward,” Nermine said in an interview Friday. “I went to church after Palm Sunday — the priest was praying for the bomber.”
Nermine told ABC News she personally doesn’t experience discrimination as an Egyptian Christian, but rather the contrary. She said her Muslim friends and colleagues were very apologetic and supportive after the bombings on Palm Sunday.
“I don’t feel different,” she said. “I feel part of their families, they feel part of mine. We engage in their Ramadan and feasts. They engage with us.”
Ibrahim Morgan, a parishioner at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Cairo, told ABC News he now worries about his family when they attend church and feels his Christian community is caught in the fight against Islamic extremism.
“I pray for my country, for my government that they win this battle,” Morgan said in an interview Friday. “We cannot afford to lose this battle.”
Morgan told ABC News he has faith in Francis, whom he called a “courageous” man.
“He is not afraid,” Morgan said. “He is a man of peace and he is willing to die for it. That is very courageous.”
Next, the pontiff visited Al-Azhar University, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the Sunni Muslim world, where he met with grand imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, according to the Vatican.
Francis also visited the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church and met with its patriarch, Coptic Pope Tawadros II. The two leaders then presided over an ecumenical prayer service in St. Peter’s church in Cairo, the site of another suicide bombing claimed by ISIS, according to the Vatican. That attack in December killed dozens of Coptic worshipers during a Sunday mass.