, CAIRO, Apr 29 – Thousands of Egyptian Catholics waving the colours of the Vatican flag gathered amid tight security Saturday in a Cairo stadium where Pope Francis was to lead mass.
Crowds of pilgrims poured out of buses into the stadium in the early hours of the morning, eager to see the Argentine pontiff in the flesh for the first time.
“I’m so happy to be seeing the pope in real life,” said Siham Ghali shortly after daybreak.
“It’s a great honour for me and all Egyptians.”
Nearby, Jihan John said she was delighted to be attending a mass led by a Catholic pope for the second time after seeing former pope John Paul II when he visited Egypt in 2000.
Francis “came to Egypt to show everybody — the whole world — that Egypt is safe,” she said.
Policemen and republican guards, deployed in great numbers, checked cars and buses outside the stadium. Helicopters flew overhead.
The 80-year-old pontiff is visiting Cairo to show solidarity with the country’s Christian minority after a series of deadly church bombings.
The Vatican said the already scheduled visit would go ahead as planned after twin church bombings killed 45 people north of Cairo on Palm Sunday earlier this month.
The attacks, as well as a December church bombing that killed 29 people, were claimed by the Islamic State group.
The jihadist group has threatened more attacks against Christians.
Dressed in his brown robes, Franciscan Father William Abdel Masseeh said the Pope’s visit was “an invitation to peace” after the bombings.
“The Pope is famous for always striving for peace,” he said.
Thousands gathered in the stadium’s terraces and in its centre to listen to the homily of the spiritual leader of the world’s almost 1.3 billion Catholics.
Egypt’s Catholic community — Coptic, Armenian, Maronite and Melkite — is estimated at about 272,000.
Christians, who make up around 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 92 million, have long complained of marginalisation in the Muslim-majority country.