(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
Pope Francis celebrated a Mass in Cairo on Saturday, the last day of a brief visit during which he urged Muslim leaders to unite against religious violence as Islamic militants threaten to rid the Middle East of its ancient Christian communities.
Francis' trip, aimed at rebuilding ties with Muslim religious leaders, comes three weeks after Islamic State killed at least 45 people in attacks on two Egyptian churches. He has used the visit to launch a strong appeal for religious freedom and accuse extremists of distorting the merciful nature of God.
After a dense first day of meetings with political and religious leaders, the highlight on Saturday was the Mass in the Air Defense Stadium, where Vatican officials said 15,000 people gathered, among them Coptic and Anglican bishops.
Crowds began to arrive early, waving Egyptian and Vatican flags to welcome Francis, who toured the stadium in a golf buggy to the sound of hymns performed by a choir and orchestra.
At the end of his Mass for the Catholic community, Francis blessed Egypt as one of the earliest nations to embrace Christianity and repeated his call for tolerance.
"True faith leads us to protect the rights of others with the same zeal and enthusiasm with which we defend our own," he told the crowd.
"God is pleased only by a faith that is proclaimed by our lives, for the only fanaticism believers can have is that of charity! Any other fanaticism does not come from God and is not pleasing to him!"
His words echoed his message on the opening day of his visit, when he told an international peace conference at Al-Azhar, Cairo's 1,000-year-old Sunni Muslim seat of learning: "Together let us affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith belief and hatred."
He also lamented the rise of "demagogic forms of populism" -- a possible reference to right-wing nationalist parties in Europe pushing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim agendas.