Pope Francis will Friday leave the Vatican for Cairo, Egypt at the invitation of both President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar University, the most important institution of learning in the world of Sunni Islam.
The Egyptian President visited the Vatican in November, 2014, while Tayeb visited last year May.
Francis will arrive in Cairo on Friday afternoon and will leave 27 hours later.
Expectedly he will meet President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, grand imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb and the country’s Coptic Pope Tawadros.
The only other visit of a Roman Catholic pope to Egypt was by Pope John Paul II in 2000. He did not meet with leaders at Al-Azhar but, after a brief sojourn in Cairo, traveled to Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, believed to contain the site of the burning bush seen by Moses.
Francis’ trip will not just be promoting dialogue among different religions, but among different sects of Christianity as well. In addition to addressing two Muslim audiences, Francis will deliver a speech to Copts, who are part of the Oriental Orthodox communion of churches, and another to Catholics, and will hold a meeting with the Coptic patriarch, Pope Tawadros II.
The third branch of Christianity, the Eastern Orthodox Church, will also be represented during the trip, as Pope Francis will be accompanied in Egypt by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.
The vast majority of Egypt’s Christians are Copts, an Orthodox sect that comprises about 10 percent of the nation’s population of 92 million. Catholics on the other hand, make up about 0.3 percent of the citizenry, and the Greek Orthodox population in Egypt is roughly the same size. The Copts are the oldest and largest Christian community in the Middle East.
Francis’ trip comes during a particularly difficult period for Christians in Egypt, who have been the victims of increased sectarian violence ever since the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood-backed president Mohammed Morsi in 2013. On April 9, bombs ripped through two Coptic churches as worshippers celebrated Palm Sunday, killing 45 and marking the bloodiest day for the community in decades. Pope Tawadros had been delivering the mass in one of the churches that was hit, but left moments before the blast.
Despite security concerns in the wake of those attacks, Francis has eschewed the use of an armoured car during his time in Egypt in keeping with his practice of mingling with ordinary people.