Pope Francis to Visit Egypt's Persecuted Copts

The Vatican has confirmed that Pope Francis will pay an official visit to Egypt's capital city of Cairo in late April to meet Muslim and Coptic leaders. The visit is in response to the long-standing invitation issued by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi when they met in Rome in 2014.

Reuters/Max RossiPope Francis exchanges gifts with Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb (L), Egyptian Imam of al-Azhar Mosque, at the Vatican, May 23, 2016.

Aside from the president, the pontiff will also meet with Pope Tawadros II, leader of the Coptic Orthodox church; and Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar. Pope Francis will be the second pontiff to visit Egypt following Pope John Paul II's historic trip in February 2000.

The imam, Egypt's top Muslim cleric, visited Rome in May 2016 where the pope embraced him, signaling the unfreezing of Catholic-Muslim relations. Al-Azhar, a 1,000-year-old mosque and university center, cut ties with the Holy See in 2011 after Pope Francis' predecessor spoke about Islam's relation to violence.

Pope Benedict denounced what he described as "a strategy of violence that has Christians as a target," referring to the New Year's Day bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria that claimed 23 lives. In contrast, Pope Francis stated that it is wrong to equate Islam with violence.

"This important visit will contribute to reinforcing the message of peace as well as the spirit of tolerance and humanity's dialogue between all the religions and the rejection of... terrorism and fanaticism," the Egyptian presidency said. Orthodox Copts account for nearly 10 percent of the majority Muslim nation's 92 million-strong population.

French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, a staunch promoter of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam, is organizing the forthcoming visit. On Feb. 22, he participated in a conference at Al-Azhar focused on how Muslim and Catholic leaders can work to counter fanaticism, extremism and violence.

Presidential spokesman Alaa Youssef read a statement from Sisi, saying: "Egypt welcomes Pope Francis and looks forward to this significant visit to strengthen peace, tolerance and inter-faith dialogue as well as to reject the abhorrent acts of terrorism and extremism," Reuters reported.