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Egypt's pope sharply criticizes president

Tuesday - 4/9/2013, 10:48pm  ET

FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 file photo, Egypt's Coptic Christian Pope, Tawadros II speaks to The Associated Press in the province of Assiut, Egypt. Christians angered by the killing of four Christians in weekend sectarian violence clashed Sunday after a funeral with a mob throwing rocks and firebombs, killing at least one person and turning Cairo's main Coptic cathedral into a battleground. Tawadros who was not in the cathedral, his headquarters, during the funeral and the violence that followed, called for calm as the specter of sectarian violence threatened to spread to the rest of the country. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File)

HAMZA HENDAWI
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt's Coptic Christian pope delivered an unprecedented direct criticism of the Islamist president Tuesday after a mob attack on the church's main cathedral, saying he had failed to protect the building and warning that the country is collapsing.

The comments by Pope Tawadros II and the cathedral attack itself illustrate a new reality in Egypt, where institutions long seen as above the fray are being dragged into the country's intense polarization and political violence.

Egypt has become increasingly divided between two camps, with President Mohammed Morsi and Islamist allies on one side and an opposition made up of moderate Muslims, Christians and liberals on the other, a schism essentially over the country's political future after decades of dictatorship. Opponents accuse Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood of seeking to monopolize power, while Morsi's allies say the opposition is trying to destabilize the country to derail the elected leadership.

Traditionally, a number of state icons were considered untouchable politically -- nationalist pillars vital for the state's stability and so too important to be criticized or mired in disputes. But one by one, they have been sucked into the country's divisions, whether under pressure to take sides or outright plunged into controversy.

The military was pulled into politics early on when it took power following the February 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak and ruled for nearly 17 months. The courts became the center of controversy last year, with repeated confrontations between Morsi's administration and members of the judiciary.

Now, not only the Coptic Church but also the country's most eminent Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, are getting caught up in the turmoil.

Tawadros' remarks Tuesday in a telephone interview with the private ONTV network were his first direct criticism of Morsi since he was enthroned in November as the spiritual leader of Egypt's Orthodox Coptic Christians. Christians make up an estimated 10 percent of Egypt's 90 million people.

Tawadros said Morsi had promised him in a telephone conversation to do everything to protect the St Mark Cathedral, which also serves as the papal seat.

"But in reality he did not," Tawadros said. When asked to explain, he said: It "comes under the category of negligence and poor assessment of events." He did not make clear whether he was accusing Morsi himself of negligence or whether he was addressing the president's government.

In violence Sunday, an angry mob of Muslims threw firebombs and rocks at the Coptic cathedral in Cairo, leaving two people dead. One of the two was identified as a Christian.

The attack followed a funeral service for four Christians killed in sectarian clashes in a town north of Cairo, which also left a Muslim dead, the deadliest sectarian violence since Morsi came to office as Egypt's first freely elected president.

Tawadros warned, "This is a society that is collapsing. Society is collapsing every day."

"The church has been a national symbol for 2,000 years," he said. "It has not been subjected to anything like this even during the darkest ages ... There has been no positive and clear action from the state, but there is a God. The church does not ask for anyone's protection, only from God."

Morsi strongly condemned the recent violence and said that he considered any attack on the cathedral to be an attack on him personally. He also ordered an investigation into the violence and revived a state body called the National Council for Justice and Equality mandated to promote equality between Egyptians regardless of their religious and ethnic background.

On Tuesday, four of his top aides visited the cathedral to offer their condolences for the victims of the violence.

A presidential statement issued late Tuesday reasserted Morsi's commitment to protect the Coptic church and to bring to justice those behind the violence. It described the president's order to revive the council as a "serious initial step."

Also in an earlier statement, the office of Morsi's assistant for foreign relations underlined that the presidency rejects violence "in all forms and under any pretext" and that "all Egyptians are citizens who should enjoy all rights and are equal before the law." It said the presidency has ordered authorities to "to exert their utmost efforts to contain the situation and protect the lives and property of citizens."

Speaking to reporters in Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell urged Morsi to make good on his promise of a full investigation and to make public the findings.

"The failure to prosecute perpetrators of sectarian crimes has contributed to an environment of impunity in Egypt, and so we are concerned," he said.

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