ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Pope Francis arrived in Egypt today. Suicide bombings at Egyptian Coptic churches earlier this month killed about 50 people and injured many more. The pope says he is here to console, and he's also appealing for a united Christian-Muslim front to combat violence and extremism. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Cairo and joins us on the line. Hi, Sylvia.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: The first visit on the pope's schedule today was a peace conference at Al-Azhar University, one of the main centers of learning for Sunni Islam. He was hosted by the grand imam there. How unusual is this kind of visit for a pope?
POGGIOLI: It was very unusual because in 2011, Al-Azhar had broken off relations with the Vatican after Pope Benedict XVI had demanded that Egypt better protect its Christian minority. Francis has been mending fences and last year welcomed the grand imam to the Vatican. And today, here he was at Al-Azhar.
SHAPIRO: And what was his message at Al-Azhar University and in Egypt generally directed to Muslims?
POGGIOLI: Well, he addressed the grand imam, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, who has strongly condemned Islamic fundamentalism, as his brother. And in his speech to the broader Muslim world, he stressed the need for imams, Muslim teachers, to teach students to reject violence in God's name to counter effectively what he called the barbarity of those who foment hatred and violence. Here we can hear Francis speaking.
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POPE FRANCIS: (Foreign language spoken).
POGGIOLI: Francis stressed the importance of what he called education in respectful openness and sincere dialogue with others, recognizing their rights and basic freedoms, particularly religious freedom. He said this represents the best way to build the future together, to be builders of civility. The only alternative, he said, is the incivility of conflict.
SHAPIRO: And how was the message received?
POGGIOLI: Oh, he got a very warm welcome. He was - his speech was interrupted many times with loud applause. The grand imam thanked him for what he called his fair comments. He said we have to cleanse religions from wrong notions, false piety which incite hatred and violence.
SHAPIRO: How do other Christian leaders feel about the pope's outreach to Muslim leaders?
POGGIOLI: Well, Francis has a lot of critics within the Church. Many conservative Catholics insist that a war of religion is being waged against Christians in the Middle East. He rejects that notion. Francis is convinced that interreligious dialogue is the only way to fight Islamic extremism. But even among some of his fellow Jesuits, some believe that his message of dialogue and tolerance towards Islam is naive. So this trip has been a very delicate balancing act.
SHAPIRO: The pope also visited St. Peter's Church in Cairo today. What message did the pope have for the Christian minority in Egypt?
POGGIOLI: Well, Francis stressed how Christianity in Egypt is not a recent arrival or the product of colonialism. Its roots date to the Roman Empire, and Muslims and Christians have lived here side-by-side for centuries. He again made a huge strong appeal that in this land of covenants, he called it, between peoples and believers, that we all say together a strong no to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli speaking with us from Cairo. Thank you, Sylvia.
POGGIOLI: Thank you, Ari.
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