As the sun came down around the Vatican Embassy in Cairo on Friday, police lined the streets, and soldiers waited in army trucks behind roadblocks.

Despite the heavy security presence, there was a sense of relief as many eyes turned to their television screens to watch the day’s events unfold. On his first day of his first visit to Egypt, Pope Francis was safe.

“This visit will strengthen relations between Christians in Egypt and the Catholic Church,” said Rizk Rashad, looking away from the cafe TV screen where the pope and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi were speaking. “Perhaps next our president will visit the Vatican.”

On the television, Francis delivered a speech warning of the dangers of rigid, narrow-minded belief structures.

“For all our need of the Absolute, it is essential that we reject any ‘absolutizing’ that would justify violence,” the pope said. “For violence is the negation of every authentic religious expression.”     

The visit comes amid difficult times for Egyptian Coptic Christians, one of the largest and oldest minority groups in the Middle East. Earlier this month, more than 40 people were killed in three church attacks claimed by Islamic State militants.

Earlier Friday, as Francis visited two of Egypt’s most famous cathedrals and mosques, security forces appeared noticeably nervous, lining the streets and rapidly inspecting cars in advance of the pontiff’s arrival.

A heartening sign

The Vatican refused to cancel the papal visit after the attacks, as well as the offer of an armored car. And while some locals feared for the pope’s safety, others saw the fact that the visit was proceeding as a sign of better times to come.

“We were hoping the visit would be in a better situation,” Saber Ghebrial Ayoub said. “But we respect that he did not cancel. He knows that his message of peace and love will speak directly to Egyptian people.”


WATCH: Heather Murdock reports on Egypt’s Coptic Christians

Tough times

There are roughly 10 million Coptic Christians in Egypt, a nation of 92 million people, but the Christian population in the Middle East is in decline. In Syria and Iraq, IS militants have driven out vast numbers of Christians in recent years.

But in Egypt, Christians say discrimination usually comes in the form of economic and political disadvantages.

“Many of our rights seem lost to us,” said merchant Maged Taqawy Fakhry, 36. “We do not fill important positions in Egypt, and we face discrimination from authorities. We face so many obstacles and so much harassment.”

One of the pope’s stated missions in Egypt is to strengthen interfaith efforts between Christians and Muslims. And some analysts say that at a time when extremist groups are intentionally creating division, interfaith dialogue is key to maintaining Egypt’s relative stability.

“From Muslims who know God, there is no challenge toward Christians,” said Edward Bohnin, an Egyptian political analyst and journalist who specializes in Coptic issues. “But there is the other team, which are the terrorists. … They want to divide us to control us by planting the seed of sectarian strife.”

Mass at Cairo Stadium

The pope’s visit will include meetings with Egypt’s leading Christian and Muslim clerics as well as political leaders. On Saturday, Francis is expected to celebrate Mass at Cairo Stadium before dining with Egyptian priests and returning to the Vatican.

In his remarks, the pontiff said the path toward peace is not just the rejection of extremism, but the embrace of religion, without speaking specifically about Catholicism.

During Friday’s visit, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam at al-Azhar in Cairo, one of the Muslim world’s leading religious institutions, met with Francis and echoed some of his sentiments.

“With all these accomplishments [of the 21st century], how come peace has become a lost paradise?” he said. “The answer, I assume, is that modern civilization has ignored religion.”

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