TANTA, Egypt — On a table in Paula Youssef’s apartment sits a framed collage of worshipers killed in Egypt’s latest church bombings, all people he knew.
They included his best friend, Bishoy.
Youssef, too, almost died in the blast nearly three weeks ago during Palm Sunday services that was claimed by Egypt’s Islamic State affiliate. So like many Christians in this sprawling northern city, Youssef thought Pope Francis would cancel a scheduled trip to Egypt.
But despite concerns about his safety, the pontiff is set to arrive in Egypt on Friday for a two-day visit that will include meetings with senior political and religious leaders as well as Mass on Saturday.
“It’s really touching that Pope Francis has decided to come after all that has happened,” said Youssef, who was at St. George’s church when a suicide bomber detonated explosives, killing at least 29 people on April 9.
Francis arrives at a tumultuous time for Egypt’s minority Christians, marked by fear and uncertainty of the future. Over the past five months, they have been targeted in several church bombings, drive-by shootings and assassinations carried out by Islamic State militants determined to sow religious divisions and destabilize Egypt.
On one hand, the pope’s visit is an effort to show unity with the Middle East’s embattled Christian community, which has been persecuted by religious extremists in Syria, Iraq and Libya. But the visit, observers say, is also designed to forge stronger ties between Egypt’s Muslims and Christians, especially their leaders. For decades, Christians have faced discrimination and sporadic abuse at the hands of successive governments.
“The message will be one of solidarity, both within the Christian community, but as importantly, across Muslim and Christian communities,” said Art Kirby, the country director for Catholic Relief Services. “In light of the recent bombings, the Christian community in Egypt feels increasingly vulnerable. However, many first responders to the attacks, and indeed some of the victims themselves, were Muslim.”
Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 95 million. The vast majority are Orthodox Coptic Christians; Catholics make up less than 1 percent. That Francis is visiting a country with such a small number of Catholics “is incredibly significant in showing the need for all people of faith to come together and engage in dialogue and cooperation,” Kirby said.
In a video message this week posted online, Francis said he would like his visit to “be a witness of my affection, comfort and encouragement for all the Christians of the Middle East” and “a message of friendship and respect” for Egyptians and the region. His visit, he added, was also “a message of brotherhood and reconciliation” with the Muslim world.
“Our world is torn by blind violence, a violence that has also struck the heart of your beloved land,” Francis said. “Our world needs peace, love and mercy.”
Since his ascension to the papacy in 2013, Francis has visited several countries gripped by turmoil and potential security threats, including the Central African Republic, where fighting between Muslims and Christians has left thousands of people dead in recent years, and Kenya, where al-Shabab militants have staged attacks.
In December, the Islamic State asserted responsibility for a bombing at the main Coptic Cathedral complex in Cairo, killing more than two dozen worshipers, most of them women and children. In February, hundreds of Christians fled the Sinai Peninsula following assassinations by Islamic State militants, who in a video vowed more attacks on Christians.
Hours after the attack in Tanta, another suicide bombing at the entrance of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria killed at least 18 people. They included several Muslim police officers who stopped the bomber from entering the church. The head of Egypt’s Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, was presiding over Palm Sunday Mass but was unharmed.
After these attacks, Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi declared a three-month state of emergency. Yet last week, the Islamic State once again asserted responsibility for an attack on security forces at a Sinai desert checkpoint near St. Catherine’s Monastery, one of the world’s oldest, killing a police officer and injuring three others.
Despite the threats, the pope has refused to use an armored car when he rides through the streets of Cairo, the Vatican said last week, because he thinks that would prevent him from engaging with the people who come out to greet him.
But the recent attacks raise questions about Egypt’s ability to adequately protect the pope. Soldiers and police officers have secured many of the churches around the nation, and yet suicide bombers managed to target the churches in Alexandria and Tanta.
Christians largely supported Sissi in the hopes that he would protect them and favored a government crackdown on Islamists. But the continuing attacks have triggered anger and disillusionment among many toward the government.
“They are not serious or committed in trying to protect churches and Christian institutions in Egypt,” said Fakry Naguib, whose wife and two daughters were among the victims of a church bombing in Alexandria in 2011 that killed at least 23 people.
Francis is scheduled to meet with Sissi and Tawadros, as well as the country’s bishops and other Christian clergy. He will also pay a visit to Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al Azhar, a 1,000-year-old mosque and university respected by Sunni Muslims, who are the majority in Egypt.
Relations soured between the Roman Catholic Church and Muslim clerics in 2011 after Pope Benedict XVI denounced the church bombing in Alexandria and urged Egypt’s leaders to do more to protect Christians. Francis has tried to improve ties since becoming pope, and last year he welcomed Tayeb to the Vatican.
“The visit itself, while hugely symbolic, will not bring peace or bridge divides overnight,” Kirby said. “It will be up to Christian and Muslim communities themselves to sustain the momentum the visit will provide. Across Egypt, religious leaders, government officials and civil society actors will need to lead by example themselves, both in words and actions.”
On Saturday, Francis will celebrate Mass and deliver prayers for Christians and Muslims killed in the recent militant attacks.
For some of the victims’ friends and family members, the visit mirrors their own feelings.
Even as they are repeatedly targeted, even as they desperately want better protection under Sissi, they have remained resolute. They say they are determined not to allow the extremists to shatter their country or its image.
“His visit is a message of strength and resilience,” said Joseph Malak, a lawyer representing the victims of the Alexandria bombings this month and in 2011. “Despite all the attacks, he still decided to visit. It shows that Egypt is still a safe country.”
Heba Mahfouz contributed to this report.