By Philip Pullella and Mahmoud Mourad
CAIRO (Reuters) – Pope Francis, starting a two-day visit to Egypt, urged Muslim leaders on Friday to unite in renouncing religious extremism at a time when Islamist militants are targeting ancient Christian communities across the Middle East.
Francis’s trip, aimed at improving Christian-Muslim ties, comes just three weeks after Islamic State suicide bombers killed at least 45 people in two Egyptian churches.
“Let us say once more a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God,” the pope told a peace conference at Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, Al-Azhar.
Francis is meeting an array of religious and political leaders in his brief stay, telling reporters travelling on his plane that he was carrying a message of peace and unity.
Eschewing the armoured motorcades normally reserved for visiting heads of state, the 80-year-old pontiff instead clambered into a simple Fiat car on his arrival, and, with his window wound down, drove off into the heavily guarded capital.
“Pope of Peace in Egypt of Peace,” read posters plastered along the largely deserted road leading from the airport.
He is the second pope to visit Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, following John Paul II, who came in 2000, a year before the September 11 attacks on the United States that convulsed Western relations with the Muslim world.
While Egypt has escaped the sort of violence that has engulfed Syria and Iraq, its Christian community has felt the full force of Islamist militants over the past six months, with bomb attacks in several churches.