CAIRO – Egypt’s Christians are still mourning fellow members of the Coptic Orthodox community murdered this month by jihadists, but there is also joy ahead of Pope Francis’s visit this weekend.
In a Cairo Church amid wafting incense, strident percussion and prayers, worshippers are looking forward to the Roman Catholic pope’s arrival on Friday, 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 percent Muslim.
His already arranged trip rapidly assumed a highly symbolic tone after two jihadist suicide bombers on April 9 targeted Coptic churches in the northern cities of Alexandria and Tanta.
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.”
The threat remains ever-present, however, as the jihadists have threatened further attacks against the Copts who make up some 10 percent of Egypt’s population of more than 90 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.
But at Sunday night’s mass in Cairo there was optimism.
– ‘A blessing for us’ –
“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,” she said.
While the overwhelming majority of Egypt’s Christians are Coptic Orthodox, Roman Catholics have also lived in the country since the fifth century.
Egypt’s small Catholic community — some 272,000 faithful, according to Holy See estimates — also wants a lavish welcome for its spiritual leader.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Catholic orders in Egypt — Franciscans, Dominicans, 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: the Catholic Coptic church, the Armenian, Maronite and Greek Catholic churches.
Ahead of this weekend’s celebrations, one choir is rehearsing in a hall beside Saint Joseph’s church of the Franciscan fathers in central 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.
“On the uniform, we have agreed on white shirts and black trousers,” she told the choir, speaking in Arabic interspersed with some French.
“Of course his visit at this time makes us proud,” Michel told AFP.
– ‘Moral and spiritual support’ –
“At the same time, his visit makes us feel safe — his insistence on coming despite the circumstances is something that reassures us,” she said.
“He’s coming to support us, and that allows us to feel safe.”
Ibrahim Isaac, the Catholic Coptic patriarch in Egypt, echoed the same sentiments.
He said the papal visit represents “moral and spiritual support” at a time when “the succession of incidents is causing a form of frustration among the people, and sometimes anger”.
The Palm Sunday bombings followed an attack in December by a suicide bomber who detonated his explosives in a packed Cairo church, killing 29 people.
Pope Francis is also scheduled to meet President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Coptic Pope Tawadros II and Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest institution of Sunni Islam.
“The visit is very important to consolidate inter-religious dialogue,” said Catholic Coptic Bishop Yohana Kolta.
“Pope Francis has rebuilt bridges which were broken,” he said.
The visit comes 17 years after Pope Jean-Paul II came to Egypt in a trip that had a lasting impact.
“He was much loved by Christians, and also by Muslims — he represented goodness and love for everyone,” Bishop Kolta said.
And the current Bishop of Rome?
“Pope Francis is from Argentina, he comes from the third world. And he stands with the poor and the weak,” Kolta said.-AFP