CAIRO – Military helicopters flew overhead and police fanned out in force Saturday as Pope Francis celebrated an open-air Mass for Egypt’s tiny Catholic community on the final day of a visit aimed at comforting Christians following a series of attacks by Islamic militants.
Despite the security concerns, Francis zoomed around the Cairo sports stadium in an open-topped golf cart before the start of Mass, evidence of his desire to be close to his flock at all costs.
The crowd cheered him wildly, waiving Egyptian and Holy See flags and swaying to hymns sung by church choirs. The defense ministry’s stadium has a capacity of 25,000, but only about 15,000 people attended — a reflection that Catholics represent less than 1 percent of Egypt’s 92 million people.
In his homily, Francis urged them to be good and merciful to their fellow Egyptians, saying “the only fanaticism believers can have is that of charity!”
“Any other fanaticism does not come from God and is not pleasing to him!” he said.
It was a very pastoral message after Francis on his first day demanded that Muslim leaders renounce religious fanaticism that leads to violence. Francis made the appeal during a landmark visit to Cairo’s Al-Azhar, the revered, 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Islam learning that trains clerics and scholars from around the world.
Security was exceptionally tight around the stadium and in the upscale neighborhood where Francis spent the night, with uniformed and plain-clothed police stationed every meter (yard) or so along his motorcade route. Police used metal detectors to check vehicles for explosives and armed guards stood watch, some on rooftops, their faces covered.
But Francis decided to forego the bullet-proof “popemobile” that his predecessors used on foreign trips and drove through Cairo in a simple Fiat, his window rolled down.
“He is a messenger of peace, he is really a messenger of peace,” said Amgad Eskandr before the Mass got under way at the stadium. “All his words talk about peace, call for peace, push for peace which is great.”
His gestures sent a defiant message to the extremist Islamic State group, whose local affiliate in Egypt has vowed to target Egypt’s Christians to punish them for their support of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
As defense minister, El-Sissi had led the military ouster of the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president whose one-year rule proved divisive.
Already, attacks against Christians in northern Sinai, the epicenter of the insurgency, have forced hundreds of families to flee the region, seeking refuge elsewhere in Egypt. Recent attacks on churches — one in Cairo in December and twin Palm Sunday attacks in cities north of the Egyptian capital — have claimed at least 75 lives and injured scores.
The attacks led to heightened security at churches nationwide and the declaration by el-Sissi of a state of emergency.
Francis strongly backed the government’s crackdown on the extremists Friday, saying Egypt was uniquely placed to bring peace to the region and “vanquish all violence and terrorism.”
He also paid tribute to the victims of a December bombing at central Cairo’s St. Peter’s church, which is located in close proximity to the St. Mark’s cathedral, the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Blood on one of the church walls remains along with pictures of the victims in remembrance of the attack.
His visit drew praise from Egyptian Catholics, who haven’t seen a pope in their land since St. John Paul II visited in 2000.
“I think he is a man of peace and I think he will be like John Paul II, he will be a saint,” said Mariam Fayek from the stadium grounds.
What is at stake in Egypt, home to one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, is to prevent a repeat of what happened in Iraq in the years that followed the 2003 ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein, when militants of al-Qaida — the IS forerunner in Iraq — systematically targeted the country’s ancient Christian minority and forced many to flee.
Pope Tawadros II, the spiritual leader of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Christians, is a close el-Sissi ally who has tirelessly advocated Muslim-Christian harmony. “Egyptians are united in pain and in joy,” he told Francis on Friday.
After Mass on Saturday, Francis meets with Catholic priests and seminarians before returning to Rome.