VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis is brushing off security concerns to forge ahead on Friday with a two-day trip to Egypt aimed at presenting a united Christian-Muslim front that repudiates violence committed in God's name.
Three weeks after Islamic militants staged twin Palm Sunday church attacks, Francis is to land in Cairo in the early afternoon for a series of deeply symbolic encounters with Egypt's religious and political leadership.
He will meet with Egypt's president, patriarch and the "other" pope, Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and pray for victims of the attacks.
Most importantly, he will also visit Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of learning in Sunni Islam. There, he will meet privately with grand imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, and participate in an international peace conference Friday afternoon.
Looking relaxed and cheerful and carrying his own travel satchel as usual, the pope climbed the steps of the Alitalia jet in late morning and chatted with the flight crew. The plane took off from Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport about 11 a.m. (0900 GMT).
The goal of the trip is to bring a message of peace to a country that has been ravaged by Islamic extremist attacks, and encourage a culture of respect and tolerance for religious minorities, said Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state.
"The fundamental issue is education, and educating those of different religious beliefs and especially the young, to have great respect for those of other faiths," Parolin told the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano. "The question of language is fundamental: when you use a violent language, there is the danger that it can result in violent acts."
After visiting Al-Azhar, Francis meets with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and then heads to the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which accounts for about 10 percent of Egypt's 92 million people.
Francis and Tawadros will preside over an ecumenical prayer service in St. Peter's church, the Coptic cathedral that was the site of a December suicide bombing claimed by Islamic State militants that killed 30 people.
Francis has frequently spoken out about today's Christian martyrs and the "ecumenism of blood" that has united Catholic, Orthodox and other Christians targeted for their faith by Islamic militants.
Parolin, the Vatican No. 2, said he hoped Francis' visit might help convince them to "stay in their countries despite the difficulties and continue to give their Christian testimony in a majority Muslim society."
While Francis eschewed the armored popemobile his predecessors used on foreign trips, security was visibly tightened for the 27 hours he will be on the ground in Cairo.
Streets that will be used by the pontiff's motorcade around the Coptic Orthodox cathedral and the Vatican Embassy were cleared of cars, and police swarmed the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek on a Nile River island where Francis will sleep on Friday.
Policemen in riverboats patrolled the Nile in front of the embassy. Security men were posted every hundred meters (yards) or so along the 20-kilometer (12-mile) stretch between the airport and central Cairo in anticipation of Francis' arrival. Armored cars were stationed in front of the presidential palace, where Francis makes his first stop.
The pope's visit, however, is unlikely to cause much disruption to the city of some 18 million people as it falls on the Muslim Friday-Saturday weekend, when the usually congested traffic is significantly lighter.
Banners in the Zamalek neighborhood welcomed Francis, with one from a private company saying "1,000,000 workers of Sharm el-Sheikh welcome the pontiff."