Pope Francis arrived in Egypt on Friday, kicking off a two-day trip designed to forge Muslim-Christian brotherhood and show solidarity with the country’s persecuted Coptic Christian minority.
President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi received the Pope around 2:30 p.m. (8:30 a.m. ET), at the Ittihadiya Presidential Palace in Cairo. The leaders stood shoulder to shoulder as the pontifical and Egyptian national anthems played.
Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail greeted Francis on the tarmac at Cairo International Airport, Egyptian state TV shows.
The visit comes nearly three weeks after the Palm Sunday bombing of two Coptic churches, brazen strikes that left at least 45 people dead.
Francis is due to join Pope Tawadros II, head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, for a peace conference among Muslim and Orthodox Christian leaders, then to meet Tawadros II at the patriarch’s residence.
Francis met with with Sheihk Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar, the premier seat of high learning among Sunni Muslims, according to a state TV broadcast. He is the first pontiff to visit the institution since Pope John Paul II in 2000.
The Pope and the Grand Imam spoke at the closing of the International Conference for Peace, organized by Al-Azhar. The pair were seated side by side at the conference.
Francis started his speech with “As-Salaam Alaikum” (Peace be upon you), the traditional Muslim greeting in Arabic, after the imam’s address.
Francis and Tawadros II are expected to pray at the Coptic cathedral that was bombed in December. The blast occurred at the church of St. Peter and St. Paul, attached to St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo’s Abbassiya district.