Pope Francis Visits Egypt’s Muslims and Persecuted Christians

Pope Francis flies to Egypt on Friday to show solidarity with the country's persecuted Christians and to try to mend relations with Muslims across the region.

Francis will meet with Pope Tawadros II, the spiritual leader of the country's Orthodox Christians, as well as Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayyib, the grand imam of al-Azhar, Egypt's highest Islamic authority.

He hopes to rebuild ties with al-Azhar, which froze all dialogue with the Catholic Church in 2011 after Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict, denounced what he called "a strategy of violence that has Christians as a target."

On Tuesday, the pope said he hopes the visit will be an "encouragement to all Christians in the Middle East."

Francis' trip also comes at a time when Egypt's ancient minority of Coptic Christians are under attack from ISIS. Experts told NBC News earlier this month that the violence leveled against them was "the worst it has ever been," experts told NBC News earlier this month.

On Palm Sunday, on April 9, bombers targeted two churches in different cities, killing at least 44 people.

ISIS claimed responsibility for what was the latest in a string of attacks targeting the group.

Christians make up around 10 percent of Egypt's mostly Muslim population of 83 million. They have long faced discrimination, but in recent years they have found themselves increasingly targeted by Islamist extremists.

"This is probably the worst it has ever been - but that's not to say things were necessarily rosy before," according to Dr. H.A. Hellyer, a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

The Palm Sunday attacks first struck St. George Church in Tanta, a city around 80 miles north of Cairo on the Nile Delta. At least 27 people died. Three hours later, another bomb went off in front of St Mark's Cathedral in Alexandria, killing another 17.

Egypt's Ministry of Interior said the bomber in Alexandra belonged the same terrorist cell that killed 30 people in December when it blew up a chapel next to Egypt's main Coptic Christian cathedral in Cairo.

"They have never been targeted in the way that they are now," said Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. "Egypt is extremely dangerous for Copts in ways it hasn't been dangerous before."

The Palm Sunday blasts prompted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sissi to declare a three-month state of emergency and promise to protect the religious minority. This cast a shadow over the Easter celebrations a week later.

Ahead of that celebration, a dozen high-ranking police officers stood guard at all of its entrances, searching cars and scanning for threats, according to an Associated Press report from the scene.

Outside of the city's St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church, five soldiers sat on a tank parked outside the building, according to the news agency.

Usually joyous, this year's prayers were conducted under a fug of unease. Not that the worshipers will be cowed into staying at home.

"No security measure can stop a suicide bomber with jihadist beliefs from blowing up a church," Coptic engineer Emad Thomas told the AP on the Wednesday before Easter. But he added that "Egypt's Copts put their trust in God and not in security measures."

These heightened tensions also play into the hands of ISIS, according to some experts. Squeezed by a U.S.-backed military effort in Syria and Iraq, the group is attempting to establish a foothold in Egypt by destabilizing the country's fragile demographic patchwork.

"ISIS wants to sow differences and undermine the social fabric in Egyptian society," according to Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations. "There's also a very ideological element to it — like their attacks against Shiites and Christians in Iraq — they want to purge the land."

Today, around 85 percent of Egyptians are Muslim. But it wasn't always this way. Before the Arab conquest in the 7th century, Christianity was widespread in the country. With just 250 miles between Jerusalem and Cairo, it was one of the earliest Christian communities on Earth.

Many Copts rejoiced in 2013 when Sisi ousted Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president, because they hoped he would crack down on sectarianism and promote equality. Pope Tawadros II, the spiritual leader of the country's Orthodox Christians, publicly backed the power-grab.

Some, however, feel that optimism was misplaced. They cite what they say are discriminatory laws, including one that makes it harder to rebuild churches after firebombing attacks than it would be if they were mosques.

Sisi's opponents say the state of emergency will allow him to arbitrarily detain activists and others in its efforts to clamp down on civil society.

"The double bombing came as a real shock," said Dr. Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, based in Beirut, Lebanon.

The attacks, she said, confirmed the fears of many Christians that the regime change had not brought them the security they hoped for. "On the contrary, there is a palpable sense of increasing vulnerability at a time of heightened insecurity and polarization along identity lines," Yahya said.

"For many Copts, they feel as if their community is fast becoming the public face of this polarization and a flashpoint for regional tensions that have nothing to do with them," she added.

While ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, other groups in the country have been guilty of fanning the flames for political gains, according to Hellyer, who is also a fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute.

"The rise of radical Islamist extremism like ISIS is certainly the most crucial element, but the use of sectarian incitement for populist partisanship on the side of less radical Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, cannot be underestimated," he said.

He added that "those groups need to take responsibility for providing some very dangerous mood music. The authorities have to respond smartly and effectively, but they cannot ignore it."