Pope Francis celebrated a Mass in Cairo on Saturday, the last day of a brief visit during which he urged Muslim leaders to unite against religious violence as Islamic militants threaten to rid the Middle East of its ancient Christian communities.
Francis’ trip, aimed at rebuilding ties with Muslim religious leaders, comes three weeks after Islamic State killed at least 45 people in attacks on two Egyptian churches. He has used the visit to launch a strong appeal for religious freedom and accuse extremists of distorting the merciful nature of God.
After a dense first day of meetings with political and religious leaders, the highlight on Saturday was the Mass in the Air Defence Stadium, where Vatican officials said 15,000 people gathered, among them Coptic and Anglican bishops.
Crowds began to arrive early, waving Egyptian and Vatican flags to welcome Francis, who toured the stadium in a golf buggy to the sound of hymns performed by a choir and orchestra.
At the end of his Mass for the Catholic community, Francis blessed Egypt as one of the earliest nations to embrace Christianity and repeated his call for tolerance.
“True faith leads us to protect the rights of others with the same zeal and enthusiasm with which we defend our own,” he told the crowd.
“God is pleased only by a faith that is proclaimed by our lives, for the only fanaticism believers can have is that of charity! Any other fanaticism does not come from God and is not pleasing to him!”
His words echoed his message on the opening day of his visit, when he told an international peace conference at Al-Azhar, Cairo’s 1,000-year-old Sunni Muslim seat of learning: “Together let us affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith belief and hatred.”
He also lamented the rise of “demagogic forms of populism” -- a possible reference to right-wing nationalist parties in Europe pushing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim agendas.
The unusual choice of venue for Saturday’s religious service highlights the security concerns surrounding the trip.
Helicopter gunships circled the perimeter of the stadium and military jeeps patrolled the streets of the Egyptian capital on Saturday. The pope himself declined the use of an armored limousine, preferring instead to travel in an ordinary Fiat car to be closer to people.
Francis will have lunch with Egyptian bishops and lead prayers at a Catholic seminary in the south of Cairo before heading back to Italy in the late afternoon.
The visit was the first by Francis to Cairo but the second by a Vatican pope. Pope John Paul II came to Egypt in 2000, a year before the September 11 attacks on the United States that convulsed Western relations with the Muslim world.
Egypt’s Christians comprise roughly 10 percent of the 92 million population -- making them by far the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Most of Egypt’s Christians are Coptic Orthodox with barely 200,000 members of Churches within the Roman Catholic fold.
While Egypt has escaped the sort of sectarian violence that has decimated ancient Christian communities in Syria and Iraq, it is under threat from Islamic State militants who launched a campaign in December to wipe out Egypt’s Christians, carrying out three church attacks that have killed more than 70 people.
The campaign presents a challenge for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has vowed to crush Islamist extremist and is fighting a long-running insurgency in North Sinai, where Islamic State murders have forced hundreds of Copts to flee.
Sisi, who declared a three-month state of emergency after the Palm Sunday church attacks, appealed for more international cooperation to combat terrorism when he met Francis on Friday.
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