VATICAN CITY (AP) — Two popes prayed together Friday at the Vatican, one Catholic and one Orthodox, in a sign of improving ties following the election of new leaders for both churches.
Pope Francis welcomed the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, Pope Tawadros II, in the first such meeting at the Vatican in 40 years, saying his visit "strengthens the bonds of friendship and brotherhood" between the two churches.
The Coptic and Catholic churches split in the fifth century over theocratic differences.
Christians comprise about 10 percent of Egypt's population. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt counts about 10 million faithful, while the Coptic Catholic Church in Egypt — whose faithful are loyal to Pope Francis — counts about 165,000.
Both, however, have complained about increased discrimination and attacks against them since the 2011 overthrow of longtime Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak, especially with the rise of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
With Francis in white and Tawadros in black, the two prayed together for peace Friday in the modern, mosaic-covered Redemptoris Mater Chapel inside the Apostolic Palace. Arabic chants dominated the simple ceremony.
The occasion was to mark the 40th anniversary of a declaration for improving ties signed in 1973 at the Vatican by Pope Paul VI and Tawadros' predecessor, Pope Shenouda III, who died last year. The late Pope John Paul II visited Shenouda in Cairo in 2000.
Francis on Friday referred to the "suffering" of Christians, saying their shared suffering can be a source of strength and unity.
"From shared suffering can blossom forth forgiveness, reconciliation and peace, with God's help," he said.
Since taking office last year, Tawadros has reached out to Egypt's Catholic community, attending the installation of the new Catholic patriarch and helping form a council of Christian churches in Egypt.
Francis, for his part, has made several overtures to the Orthodox Church. The Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, attended Francis' installation ceremony in an important gesture of unity.
In his remarks, Tawadros said he had wanted to come to Rome to congratulate Francis on his election, invite him to Egypt and to try to build both unity between the churches and peace in the region.
"Working together to promote ecumenical dialogue and peace on earth will be our mutual aim," he said in English.
Tawadros' presence inside the Apostolic Palace meant there were actually three popes inside the Vatican on Friday: Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI was in his retirement home in a monastery inside the Vatican gardens.