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Pope John Paul II Lands in Egypt

February 24, 2000

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Pope John Paul II arrived today in Egypt on a pilgrimage to retrace some of the most epic passages from the Bible _ and a trip that also is an opportunity to promote closer dialogue with Muslims and try to overcome old rifts with Orthodox Christians.

John Paul, dressed in white robes embroidered in gold, emerged from his plane and slowly made his way down red-carpeted stairs to the tarmac at Cairo’s international airport.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak greeted him with a handshake at the foot of the stairs.

A band played the processional from Verdi’s ``Aida,″ an opera associated with Egypt, as Mubarak then escorted the pope, leaning on a walking stick, to stand before the flags of Egypt and the Vatican. Four young children carried a tray of Egyptian soil to the pope, who kissed it.

``We never could have imagined that we would have the pope under our roof,″ said Samir Yassa, who designed the New Cathedral of Our Lady of Egypt where John Paul plans to meet Friday with Orthodox and Coptic clergymen in a display of their shared roots. ``A brother is returning to a land where Christ walked.″

Days before the pope flew into Cairo from Rome, workers raced to prepare the cathedral _ opened just two months ago. Crews polished its oak doors and put fresh paint on walls and a 26-foot cross to be erected next to Islamic-style quilted cloth tarpaulins shading the entrance.

Murals and towering stained glass windows in the cathedral represent images of the baby Jesus and his parents, Mary and Joseph, fleeing to Egypt to escape the marauding King Herod.

The tale is central to the traditions of the Orthodox Copts, caretakers of one of the earliest forms of Christianity and the Church of the vast majority of Egypt’s 6.4 million Christians _ 10 percent of the population.

``This is a true blessing,″ said Father Farag, the top Coptic cleric in a Cairo neighborhood that includes a site where Copts believe the Holy Family temporarily resided.

Egypt’s small Roman Catholic community _ estimated at 220,000 _ also feels strong links to the Holy Family’s exile story although the embellished Coptic version of miracles and vivid events does not appear in the Bible.

John Paul, making his first visit to Egypt and the 90th foreign trip of his 22-year papacy, insists his agenda is ``purely religious, not political.″ But all gestures by the 79-year-old pontiff have the potential to reverberate through the volatile mix of beliefs across the Middle East.

In Cairo, the pope plans a Mass and meetings with Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III and Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, one of the most influential Muslim clerics in Egypt.

Clashes in January between Muslims and Copts in southern Egypt left 23 people dead. The pope could use his influence to press for reconciliation.

Tantawi is also an important catalyst for dialogue between Muslims and Christians. As chief cleric of Al-Azhar University, a venerable seat of learning throughout the Muslim world, Tantawi carries influence that stretches far outside Egypt’s borders.

The stalled Middle East peace process could also get an indirect boost from the pope’s presence in mostly Muslim Egypt, said Samir Morcos, associate general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches.

``This could help bring more support for Arabs in the process,″ he said. ``This could help move things along.″

The pope angered Israeli officials earlier this month by describing Israel’s control of Jerusalem as ``morally and legally unacceptable.″

On Saturday, the pope is scheduled to travel to the St. Catherine monastery, a nearly 1,500-year-old Greek Orthodox outpost in the shadow of Mount Sinai, where Scripture says God presented Moses with the Ten Commandments.

The desert range, 150 miles southeast of Cairo, is the first of the major biblical sites on the pope’s itinerary for his millennium pilgrimage. Next month, he plans to visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem as part of a tour of Israel and Palestinian territories.

The tour was to have begun with a controversial stop in Ur, an ancient city believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, in present-day Iraq. But the Iraq trip fell through when Baghdad balked.

The monastery visit also presents the pope with another chance in his desire to close the nearly 1,000-year split between the Vatican and Orthodox churches, which separated following disputes over papal authority.

Greek and Russian Orthodox leaders have been mostly hostile to any rapprochement. The Vatican last year suspended discussions on a possible papal visit to biblical sites in Greece after Orthodox clerics sharply criticized the idea.

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