"Please pray for my journey tomorrow as a pilgrim of peace to Egypt", tweeted Roman Catholic Pope Francis one day before he starts his visit to Egypt.
The Pope is set to arrive in Cairo on Friday for an official two-day visit, the first such papal trip to the country since the late Pope John Paul II visited in 2000.
Pope Francis – who is set to depart from Fiumicino airport in Rome and arrive at Cairo International Airport at 2pm – received an official invitation to visit Egypt from President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi when they met at the Vatican in 2014.
After an official reception at the airport, the pope is scheduled to meet with El-Sisi at the presidential palace in Cairo before heading to Al-Azhar to meet with its Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb.
He is also planning to meet with a number of other high-level Egyptian officials.
The pope and the grand imam are planned to speak at the International Peace Conference set to kick off in Cairo on Thursday.
Pope Francis will then head to the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo to meet with Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, where the two will give a public speech after their meeting.
The two leaders will go together to the nearby church of Sts. Peter and Paul, which had been bombed during a Sunday Mass in December 2016, killing 24 people and injuring at least 45 others.
The leaders of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic churches met Pope Francis for the first time in 2013 at the Vatican, where they stressed the importance of strengthening the bonds of friendship and brotherhood between their churches.
On Saturday, Pope Francis will be hosted at the Air Defence sports Stadium on the outskirts of Cairo.
About 25,000 people from all over Egypt are expected to attend the event, which will start at 7am and will see three hours of Christian hymns performed in Arabic, French and Italian, with a mass led by Pope Francis to start at 10am.
According to sources in the event’s organising committee, 25,000 Egyptian and Vatican flags have been printed in preparation for the event, as well as 25,000 hats to protect attendees from the sun. The temperature is expected to exceed 30 degrees Celsius on Saturday.
The event will see a screening of a film on how 54 churches were attacked by extremists in Egypt after the June 2013 protests that lead to the toppling of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
The film will also show how the state renovated the churches.
The pope, who has refused to use a bulletproof vehicle during his trip to Egypt despite recent terror attacks, will greet the attendees in a golf cart, the source said.
The pope also will also use a golf cart to circulate among more than 1,000 seminarians and clergy members expected to attend an outdoor prayer service at the Coptic Catholic Church's St. Leo's Patriarchal Seminary in the Cairo suburb of Maadi at the same day.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke confirmed on Tuesday that "the pope will use a closed car to move around [Cairo], but not an armoured one."
“That's how he wanted it," he added. The pope will head back to Rome on Saturday at 5pm.
Timing and significance
The pope’s visit comes in the same month when two suicide bombers launched attacks on two Coptic churches in Tanta and Alexandria on Palm Sunday, killing 47 people and injuring dozens in the deadliest attacks against Christians in Egypt’s recent history.
Pope Tawadros II was performing mass inside the cathedral in Alexandria at the time of the attack, though he was not injured.
Pope Francis responded to the attacks by saying “may the Lord convert the hearts of those who sow fear, violence and terror… And that of those who produce and sell weapons.”
Following the attacks, Pope Francis insisted that his visit to Egypt, which was planned prior to the bombings, should go forward as scheduled.
Egyptian Copts, the largest and oldest Christian community in the Middle East, have been the target of a wave of terrorist attacks in recent months. Four major bombings have targeted churches in Egypt since 2011.
On Tuesday, Pope Francis gave a televised speech in which he addressed Egyptians, saying he wished his visit to Egypt would mark a fruitful contribution to interreligious dialogue with the followers of Islam and to ecumenical dialogue with the “venerable and beloved” Coptic Orthodox Church.
"With a heart full of joy and gratitude I will soon visit your beloved country, the cradle of civilisation, the gift of the Nile, the land of sun and hospitality, the land where Patriarchs and Prophets lived, and where God, Benevolent and Merciful, the Almighty and One God, made his voice heard," the pope said.
He also stressed that his visit comes to convey affection, comfort and encouragement for all the Christians of the Middle East, a message of friendship and respect for all the inhabitants of Egypt and the region, and a message of brotherhood.
Rights activist Mina Thabet, a senior researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, says the visit represents a message of solidarity and encouragement to Egypt’s Copts after the recent attacks against Christians, praising what he described as the pope’s policy of building bridges between the East and the West.
In December 2016, a suicide bomber attacked a church adjoining Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral – the seat of the Coptic papacy – killing at least 28 people, mostly women and children.
Thabet says that the pope’s insistence on going forward with his visit despite the most recent attacks “represents a humanitarian principle adopted by Pope Francis, as well as a message of comfort and support to Egypt’s Copts.”
First papal visit to Azhar
Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt's Al-Azhar will be the first-ever visit by a Roman Catholic Pope to Sunni Islam’s oldest religious institution.
In February, Al-Azhar and the Vatican agreed to work together to combat terrorism and extremism after a two-day seminar on the topic in Cairo.
The seminar came up with a number of recommendations, including fostering dialogue between the two institutions and tackling the causes of extremism and violence, which include poverty, illiteracy and misinterpretation of religious doctrine.
Dialogue between the 1,000-year-old Islamic institution and the Vatican was frozen for years after Al-Azhar cut relations over comments made in 2006 by the former Pope Benedict XVI that were deemed insulting to Islam.
In May 2016, relations between the two religious institutions began to improve when Pope Francis met with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, in the Vatican.
Spokesman of Al-Azhar University Ahmed Zarea told Ahram Online that the papal visit is considered historic in terms of timing and significance, and is a very important step to enhancing dialogue between religions.
"The visit magnifies Egypt’s pivotal role in leading dialogue between religions and stresses that Islam, like all Abrahamic religions, shares the same principles of peace, love and mutual co-existence," Zarea said.
"What unifies us in Egypt is far more than what separates us, our national unity has been protected by Al-Azhar and the Egyptian church for hundreds of years, and all the latest incidents faced by our society are due to certain global circumstances and disputes," he affirmed.
The head of Egypt's Catholic Church Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak also welcomed the visit by Pope Francis, describing it as a message of peace and stability for the whole world.