Egypt’s Coptic pope criticized the Islamist president’s handling of the worst sectarian clashes in months, and demanded stronger action against violence that has deepened the nation’s rifts.
Days of Muslim-Christian fighting outside a Coptic cathedral in Cairo and in a nearby town have left at least eight dead, most of them Christians. President Mohamed Mursi demanded an investigation into the violence, vowed the perpetrators would be brought to justice and ordered the revival of a little-known body charged with tackling discrimination.
These and other government measures failed to allay concerns of the minority Christians, who had long complained of discrimination under former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and say their lot has worsened since his 2011 ouster.
Mursi, in a phone call, had promised to do “everything to protect the cathedral, but in reality, he did not,” Pope Tawadros II said in a phone interview with the independent ONTV satellite channel today. Mursi’s handling of events falls under the realm of “negligence and poor assessment of events,” the pope said, adding that the Coptic Church had never come under “such a blatant attack” in 2,000 years.
“It crossed all the red lines,” he said.
The pontiff’s rebuke was his strongest criticism of the government since the violence broke out over the weekend, compounding the chronic instability gripping Egypt since Mubarak was toppled. Days earlier, Mursi called Tawadros to condemn the violence, saying an attack on the church was tantamount to an attack on him.
The president’s office did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
The violence has intensified concerns among both Copts, who make up 10 percent of Egypt’s population, and secular critics of Mursi about their future under his Islamist government.
Several opposition and youth activist groups called for a mass march today to the Cairo cathedral that was attacked days earlier, in support of the Christians and a unified Egypt.
IMF Loan Bid
The tensions come as the government negotiates with the International Monetary Fund over a long-stalled $4.8 billion loan bid. Officials say the foreign funds are sorely needed to revive the country’s battered economy, which has struggled to rebound since the 2011 uprising.
Foreign currency reserves have plunged more than 60 percent below their December 2010 levels, the Egyptian pound is down 7 percent against the dollar since the start of the year and inflation has climbed.
The IMF sees the government’s proposed economic program as insufficient, the independent Al-Borsa newspaper reported today, citing an unidentified Finance Ministry official.
The sectarian violence has mired Egypt in even deeper trouble. The unrest began April 5 with deadly clashes in Khosous, then swung to the capital, where a mob attacked mourners at the main Coptic cathedral, then back to Khosous. At least eight people were killed.
Mursi ordered an investigation and late yesterday revived the National Council for Justice and Equality, which functioned briefly after Mubarak’s ouster.
Actions, Not Words
“We’ve seen enough committees being formed,” Tawadros said in his TV interview. “We want actions, not words.”
In an earlier interview with the Coptic EMSat channel, Tawadros said he appreciated “the feelings of the president and the government, but feelings are not enough.”
“There should be decisive, clear and satisfactory decisions,” he said, adding that the security forces’ response “sparks suspicions of dereliction of duty or miscalculation of the situation.”
The president’s office, in a statement posted late yesterday on the Facebook page of Mursi’s foreign affairs adviser, condemned the unrest and said it would not allow “any attempts to divide the nation, incite sedition or drive a wedge among Egyptians under any pretense.”
The Facebook statement said the clashes in Khosous began after an argument over Christian symbols scrawled on the wall of an Islamic building. The fighting near the cathedral erupted after mourners “vandalized” cars in the street, outraging residents who attacked them with rocks and firecrackers, the statement said.
“As usual, the government just wants things to pass without holding anyone accountable,” Father Angelos Isaac, Tawadros’ secretary, said in a phone interview. “The story is not just Copts, it’s about injustice in general.”
He said many Copts had fled the country since Mursi came to power, despite the church’s efforts to reassure them. “The new constitution just made things worse,” Isaac said of the Islamist-backed charter Mursi pushed through. He did not say how many Copts had left.
“Where is equality? Where is the representation of Copts in the government?” he asked. “Where are the principles of the Egyptian revolution?”
Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a prominent member of the National Salvation Front bloc, yesterday laid the blame for what he saw as the rise in sectarianism on the government, and said the nation needed “serious” national dialogue.
Mursi must realize that “time is not on his side,” ElBaradei said, speaking during an economic conference organized by some in the opposition.