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Pope Francis defies security concerns with open-air Mass in Egypt

Pope Francis has ended a brief but deeply symbolic visit to Egypt with an open-air Mass for the country's tiny Catholic community.

He defied security concerns to show his support for the Christians of this Muslim majority Arab nation who have increasingly become targeted by Islamic militants.

Military helicopters flew overhead and police fanned out in force as Francis zoomed around the football stadium in suburban Cairo where Mass was held, using an open-topped golf cart and waving to members of the congregation, evidence of his hallmark desire to be close to his flock at all costs.

The crowd cheered him wildly, waving Egyptian and Holy See flags and swaying to hymns sung by church choirs.

The military-run stadium has a capacity of 25,000 but only about 15,000 people attended - a reflection that Catholics represent less than 1% of Egypt's 92 million people.

But the relatively modest number and the draconian security did not dampen their jubilant mood.

Francis engaged the crowd with waves and smiles, and gave his blessings to the children hoisted up by their parents.

In his homily, Francis urged them to be good and merciful to their fellow Egyptians, saying "the only fanaticism believers can have is that of charity".

"Any other fanaticism does not come from God and is not pleasing to him," he said.

It was a very pastoral message after Francis on his first day demanded that Muslim leaders renounce religious fanaticism that leads to violence.

Francis made the appeal during a landmark visit to Cairo's Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Islam learning that trains clerics and scholars from around the world.

Security was exceptionally tight around the stadium and in the upscale neighbourhood where Francis spent the night, with uniformed and plain-clothed police stationed every yard or so along his motorcade route.

Police used metal detectors to check vehicles for explosives and armed guards stood watch, some on rooftops, their faces covered.

But Francis decided to forgo the bullet-proof "popemobile" his predecessors used on foreign trips and drove through Cairo in a simple Fiat, his window rolled down.

"He is a messenger of peace, he is really a messenger of peace," said attendee Amgad Eskandar before the Mass began at the stadium. "All his words talk about peace, call for peace, push for peace, which is great."

The pope's gestures - the simple Fiat and the open-topped Golf cart - sent a defiant message to the extremist Islamic State group, whose local affiliate in Egypt has vowed to target Egypt's Christians to punish them for their support of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

AP

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