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Pope Francis Arrives In Egypt After Attacks On Christians


Pope Francis is in Egypt for a two-day visit right now. And this is a sensitive time for him to be there. That country is facing an insurgency by violent extremists who are targeting Egypt's government as well as its Christian community. Let's talk now with NPR's Jane Arraf, who is in Cairo covering the visit. Good morning, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what does that city feel like today as the pope arrives?

ARRAF: Well, it's really oddly quiet. As you can imagine, Cairo - even on a Friday holiday - is just bustling. It's one of the biggest cities in the world.

GREENE: Yeah. You hear honking and craziness all the time, right?

ARRAF: All the time, 24 hours. But now in this neighborhood where the pope is actually staying, we're very close to the Vatican Embassy where he will spend the night. And they've blocked the streets. They've even blocked the Nile River because it's on the riverside.

So normally there are tourist boats going up and down. Now, there are just navy boats. It's obviously a huge security challenge, particularly because this pope is very low-key. He's not traveling in an armored vehicle. He's not staying at the presidential palace. So this is really a test for Egypt.

GREENE: No popemobile, as they as they would sometimes call it?

ARRAF: No popemobile.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about the substance of this trip. I mean, Christians in Egypt are a minority. They have been targeted. How important is this visit to them?

ARRAF: It's historic. And that's not a word we use lightly. So there have been kind of frayed relations - tense relations at times with Sunni officials. Cairo for centuries was one of the centers of the Muslim world. And it still has al-Azhar University, which is a leading center of Sunni Muslim thought. Now, Azhar had broken off relations with the Vatican under a previous pope. This pope has tried to mend them.

But really part of the heart of this visit is he's really reaching out to comfort Christians after attacks here. I spoke with one little girl, Joyce Gergus (ph), who I first met in December after the attack on a Cairo church. Her best friend Maggie (ph) was one of dozens of people killed in that attack. And she told me she was happy the pope was coming to pray for the victims. Let's listen to Joyce.

JOYCE GERGUS: She was my best friend but she is in another place. She's in a place best of here. I mean, she is running and playing and singing. I want her to be with God.

ARRAF: She says, I want her to be with God. Joyce is 11. Now, Christians here, particularly because they're a minority, cling very fiercely to their faith.

GREENE: Well, I mean, such a delicate balance it sounds like. I mean, the pope wants to reassure that Christian community, also wants to reach out to Muslims, the majority in Egypt. I mean, can he find a message that satisfies everyone?

ARRAF: Well, that is tricky because at the best of times this is a complicated region. And there's nothing more complicated than religion. So you'd think this idea of reaching out peace and love and let's all get along would not be controversial but in fact it is. Some people, including in the Catholic community, say he's naive.

He says this is not a war of religions, that it is possible to improve relations. And he's trying very hard to do that. That's part of what this visit is aimed at - seeing the Sunni leaders, meeting the president here - but that doesn't go over well with everyone in the region.

GREENE: OK. NPR's Jane Arraf in an uncharacteristically quiet city of Cairo today as the pope arrives. Jane, thanks.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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