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Pope Francis Visits Egypt Coptic Church After Bombings


Pope Francis is scheduled to pay his first visit to Egypt this weekend. He's visiting just two weeks after suicide bombings at two churches killed at least 45 people. The Islamic State claimed the attacks. As NPR's Jane Arraf tells us from Cairo, Egyptians are welcoming the visit for more than spiritual reasons.


JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: On this spring afternoon, Janet Bisrane (ph) and her sister and brother-in-law are playing cards in the courtyard of a social club across from their Catholic church.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: It's a close-knit community. Everyone knows each other here. They say the pope's visit is good for everyone.

JANET BISRANE: For us as Christians and secondly, it's - I think it's good for the relation between the Muslims and the Christians.

ARRAF: Egypt's Christian community is the biggest in the Middle East, about 8 million people. But that's still only 10 percent of this overwhelmingly Muslim country. The Islamic State group tries to kill anyone, including Muslims, with a different view of religion. But in Egypt, the most high-profile attacks recently have targeted Christians with three suicide bombings during church services. Bisrane says when Christianity is under threat, even more people go to church.

BISRANE: It means that we are not afraid.

ARRAF: Christians here were terrified by the security vacuum after Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011. They widely supported President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi despite a crackdown on human rights as he solidified power following a military coup.

On a street near the church, Madame Sabah (ph), as she asks us to call her, is sitting outside her clothing shop. There's a picture of the Virgin Mary near the door. She says Christians and Muslims have always gotten along here. She believes the violence against Christians is all from other countries.

MADAME SABAH: (Through interpreter) The violence is new to Egypt. I don't think it's from inside Egypt. It's maybe something political. We don't know exactly.

ARRAF: After the bombings, President Sissi declared a state of emergency across the country. Pope Francis plans to meet with Sissi and the head of the largest group of Christians in Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox Church.

In the part of the city known as Coptic Cairo, there are new metal detectors and more armed guards outside the ancient churches. Tourists from China to the U.S. walk through the Church of the Virgin Mary called the Hanging Church because it was suspended between towers of a Roman fortress.

There's a lot of biblical history in Egypt. Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus here to escape persecution. The ceiling of the Orthodox church is made of arched cedar beams that look like the hull of a ship - Noah's Ark, in fact.

SOPHIA GEORGE: So as Noah and his family entered the ark and been saved from the flood, we enter the church and be saved from the troubles of the world.

ARRAF: Saved from the troubles of the world, says Sophia George (ph). She's a university student and a volunteer guide. She says Pope Francis will bring Christians here closer together. The church's father Yaqubi Suleyman (ph) says Pope Francis is paying back a visit by Egypt's Coptic Orthodox patriarch who traveled to see him at the Vatican.

YAQUIBI SULEYMAN: (Through interpreter) Pope Francis is now coming to return that visit and to express condolences for the events the church has passed through.

ARRAF: And Father Suleyman says the church is getting more visitors, both Christian and Muslim, since the bombings. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.