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Pope Francis Heads To Egypt


Pope Francis arrives in Cairo tomorrow. It's a trip to show solidarity with Egypt's millions of Coptic Christians. Two of their churches were attacked weeks ago, attacks claimed by ISIS. The pope is also reaching out to Muslims, as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Two days before his arrival, Pope Francis released a video message in which he told Egyptians he's coming as a friend and messenger in peace.


POPE POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: Speaking in Italian with an Arabic voiceover, Francis said the world has been torn by violence which has also afflicted the heart of your dear land. It needs courageous people, he added, able to learn from the past to build a future without closing themselves up in prejudices. It needs, Francis said, builders of bridges of peace, dialogue, brotherhood, justice and humanity. While in Cairo, the pope will deliver a speech at al-Azhar University, an important center of learning in the Sunni Muslim world.

He will have meetings with the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church - which has its own pope and is not under the Catholic aegis - and with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. And he will celebrate a Mass at a stadium. Francis firmly believes in Christian-Muslim dialogue. And at al-Azhar, he will meet with Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, a leading moderate cleric who has condemned the Islamic State. Pasquale Ferrara, an Italian diplomat and author of a book on Francis and international politics contacted via Skype, says the pope has repeatedly denounced violent extremism.

PASQUALE FERRARA: The problem is not religion, it's violence and extremism. He has been really very careful not to fall into trap of the narrative of religious wars.

POGGIOLI: But many conservative Catholics are convinced a war of religion is being waged against Christians in the Middle East and they reject dialogue with Islam. The ultra-conservative Catholic blog Novus Ordo Watch commented scathingly on the logo of the papal trip for showing the Muslim crescent and the Christian cross side by side. And it derided the pope as Mr. Co-Exist. Many activists are hoping Francis will denounce human rights abuses since el-Sissi took power a year after a 2013 military coup deposed elected leader Mohammed Morsi.

Father Thomas Reese, who chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, acknowledges that the government has spoken out against attacks on Christians and that President el-Sissi has attended Christmas Mass three times. But at the same time, contacted by Skype, Reese says human rights organizations have been shut down, the free press muzzled and tens of thousands of people have been arrested.

THOMAS REESE: The pope is going to really have a challenging balancing act to do by being grateful to the el-Sissi government in terms of its improvement of religious freedom and the treatment of the Coptic Church but on the other hand cannot ignore the fact that their human rights record otherwise is pretty awful.

POGGIOLI: At the Vatican, spokesman Greg Burke was asked whether the papal trip could be seen as legitimizing Egyptian government repression.

GREG BURKE: We're not going to make anyone happy ever. You've made a whole lot of pope trips. And you've made a lot of ones more delicate than this, I'm sure. And another thing, let's hear what the pope has to say.

POGGIOLI: As for security, Burke said that as usual, the pope will travel through Cairo in a normal car. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.