Pope Francis celebrates open-air Mass in Egypt

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CAIRO — Military helicopters and police were out in force Saturday as Pope Francis arrived to celebrate an open-air Mass for Egypt’s tiny Catholic community on the second and final day of a visit aimed at encouraging Christians following a series of attacks by Islamic militants.

Despite the security concerns, Francis zoomed around the Cairo sports stadium in an open-topped golf cart before the start of Mass, evidence of his desire to be close to his flock at all costs.

The defense ministry’s stadium has a capacity of 25,000, but it was less than half-full by the time Francis arrived.

Security was exceptionally tight around the stadium and in the upscale neighborhood where Francis spent the night, with uniformed and plain-clothed police stationed every meter (yard) or so along his motorcade route. Police used metal detectors to check vehicles for explosives and armed guards stood watch, some on rooftops, their faces covered.

People cheer as Pope Francis celebrates Mass for Egypt’s tiny Catholic community.AP

Francis decided to forego the bullet-proof “popemobile” that his predecessors used on foreign trips and drove through Cairo in a simple Fiat, his window rolled down.

Upon his arrival Friday, Francis urged Egypt’s Muslim leaders to reject violence in God’s name and instead teach the young tolerance and respect of people of different faiths. He also strongly backed the government’s crackdown on political Islam and militancy.

His main event was a landmark visit to Cairo’s Al-Azhar, the revered, 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Islam learning that trains clerics and scholars from around the world. He ended the day paying tribute to the victims of a December bombing at the Coptic Orthodox cathedral, where the walls are still stained by blood and pocked by shrapnel.

After Mass on Saturday, Francis will meet with Catholic priests and seminarians before returning to Rome.