CAIRO: Egypt’s top Muslim cleric on Sunday criticized Pope Benedict XVI’s call for world leaders to defend Christians as interference in his country’s affairs, the official MENA news agency reported.
The call, following a deadly car-bombing targeting a Coptic church in Alexandria northern Egypt, was “unacceptable interference in Egypt’s affairs,” Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Shiekh of Al-Azhar, the oldest Islamic seat of learning, told reporters.
“I disagree with the pope’s view, and I ask why did the Pope not call for the protection of Muslims when they were subjected to killings in Iraq?” he said at a news conference.
The Vatican immediately rejected the accusation, saying the head of the Roman Catholic Church had shown solidarity with the Coptic community as well as concern for the consequences of the violence for the Christian and Muslim population.
“Therefore we cannot see how the Pope’s approach to bring everybody to accept non-violence can be considered meddling,” ANSA news agency quoted Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi as saying.
“I think there are misunderstandings in communication but I don’t think we should play up the Imam’s statement.”
Lombardi said the Vatican referred to “an attack against a Christian church and therefore we are concerned about Christian minorities but that does not mean that we will justify or minimize violence against the faithful of other religions.”
Benedict at a New Year’s Mass at the Vatican had appealed for the “concrete and constant engagement of leaders of nations” to protect Christians in the Middle East, in what he termed a “difficult mission.”
In the wake of rising tension and “especially discrimination, abuse and religious intolerance which are today striking Christians in particular, I once again launch a pressing appeal not to give in to discouragement and resignation,” he said.
Al-Tayeb, who renewed his condemnation of the New Year’s Eve church bombing which cost 21 lives, said Al-Azhar, the highest institute in Sunni Islam, would form a joint committee with the Coptic Church to resolve disputes between the communities.
The committee, which should begin its work in two weeks, will “discuss reasons for the deterioration (in Muslim-Copt ties) and propose appropriate solutions”, he said.
Al-Tayeb later met with the head of Egypt’s Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda III, at his headquarters in Cairo’s St Mark Cathedral.
But several dozen Coptic protesters chanted at Al-Tayeb: “We don’t want you” and banged on his car as he left.
Sectarian tensions have mounted throughout the past year, which began with a massacre of six Copts and a Muslim man outside a church in a village of southern Egypt. Three Muslim men are on trial for that attack.
Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80-million people, complain of discrimination and have been the targets of sectarian attacks.