CAIRO: Egypt’s Christians are still mourning fellow members of the Coptic Orthodox community murdered this month by extremists, but there is also joy ahead of Pope Francis’ visit this weekend.
Amid wafting incense, strident percussion and prayers in a Cairo church, worshippers are looking forward to the Roman Catholic pope’s arrival tomorrow, seeing his two-day trip as one of support for their minority community.
It will be the Argentine pontiff’s first visit to the Arab world’s most populous nation, where the population is 90% Muslim.
His already arranged trip rapidly assumed a symbolic tone after two suicide bombers targeted Coptic churches in the northern cities of Alexandria and Tanta on April 9.
The Islamic State group said it was behind the attacks, which killed 45 people.
“Obviously everyone is worried after what happened,” said 23-year-old student Karim Saber after Sunday night mass at the Virgin Mary Catholic Coptic Cathedral in northern Cairo.
“But by coming to Egypt, the pope is showing us that nothing can prevent us from praying, including terrorism.”
But the threat remains ever present as the extremists have threatened further attacks against the Copts, who make up some 10% of Egypt’s population of over 92 million.
On April 18, IS gunmen attacked a police checkpoint near the famed St Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, killing one officer and wounding three.
However, there was optimism at Sunday night’s mass in Cairo.
“After each painful moment, there is always something beautiful which brings joy,” said 25-year-old graphic designer Dina Fahmi.
“The pope, the head of the church in the world, is coming to give us support and this is a blessing for us.”
While the overwhelming majority 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 and Jesuits – developed a network of schools, hospitals and charitable activities.
The papacy formally and legally established the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate in the 19th century.
On Saturday, Pope Francis will lead a mass at a Cairo sports stadium bringing together all of the Catholic churches: Catholic Coptic, Armenian, Maronite and Greek Catholic.
Ahead of this weekend’s celebrations, one choir is rehearsing in a hall beside Saint Joseph’s church of the Franciscan fathers in Cairo.
Soprano, tenor and bass voices rise in Arabic, Italian and French, accompanied by piano, flute and saxophone and led by head chorister Magdeline Michel.
“His visit makes us feel safe – his insistence on coming despite the circumstances is something that reassures us,” she said. — AFP
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