AP Interview: Egypt's pope criticizes Islamists

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By HAMZA HENDAWI, Associated Press

AL-MUHARRAQ MONASTERY, Egypt (AP) — Egypt's Coptic patriarch delivered a cautious but unusually sharp criticism of the nation's Islamist leadership in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, dismissing the new constitution as discriminatory and rounds of national dialogues sponsored by the president as meaningless.

Pope Tawadros II's dive into politics came as he tried to energize the spiritual solidarity of a demoralized community with a visit to a historic monastery that no Coptic pontiff has been to in decades because of security tensions in southern Egypt.

He joined the black-robed monks in a two-hour pre-dawn prayer at the ancient Virgin Mary chapel in the al-Muharraq monastery, said to be on a site where the Virgin Mary took refuge with Jesus and her husband Joseph from Roman persecution.

Tawadros has taken an unusually vocal political activist stance since being enthroned in November as the spiritual leader of the Copts, the main community of Egypt's Christians.

His papacy comes as Christians are increasingly worried over the rise to power of Islamists in the country and the rule of President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood.

In a show of his more assertive stance that Christian complaints must be better addressed, Tawadros appeared less patient with media events that project a false harmony between Egypt's Muslim and Christian leaders.

His late predecessor, Shenouda III, would often receive Muslim leaders at his cathedral after significant attacks on Christians as a demonstration of unity.

Asked by the AP if he would do the same, Tawadros did not respond directly but said, "Realistically, we want actions not words. We don't want a show. Egypt has changed, we live in a new Egypt now."

Morsi is facing mounting criticism to his rule by the mostly secular and liberal opposition who accuse the Brotherhood of monopolizing power and an independent media that is ruthlessly ridiculing him.

Tawadros was dismissive of a series of national dialogues that Morsi has been holding, ostensibly as a way to broaden decision-making in response to criticism of the concentration of power with the Brotherhood. The group has emerged as Egypt's most powerful political group following autocrat Hosni Mubarak's ouster in a popular uprising two years ago.

Most opposition parties have refused to join the dialogue, as has the Coptic Church, calling it mere window dressing.

"We must and will actively take part in any national dialogue in which we see a benefit for the nation," Tawadros told the AP. "But when we find that a dialogue ends before it starts and none of its results are implemented then we realize that it is not in the interest of the nation."

Tawadros' active public political stance reflects a new attitude among Christian activists, who say the community must become more vocal in demanding equal status with Muslims.

In the past, activists say, Christians relied too much on the church to represent them behind the scenes with the country's power-brokers, a strategy they argue consigned Christians to second-class status.

The previous pope, Shenouda, was cautious about public criticism of Egypt's leadership, working instead in backroom arrangements. He was close to Mubarak, who until his ouster in February 2011 was seen by many Christians as the community's protector against Islamists.

Tawadros said he was pleased to see more and more Christians taking part in the wave of protests that has swept Egypt since early in 2011, but made clear that they should remain peaceful. Islamic militants have repeatedly charged that Christians made up the bulk of anti-Morsi protesters. They have produced no evidence to support their claim.

Tawadros' visit was the first by a Coptic pope in three decades to the 4th century al-Muharraq monastery, 180 miles (300 kilometers) south of Cairo in Assiut, which has one of the largest Christian communities of any of Egypt's 27 provinces.

Tenuous security in the area during an Islamist insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s kept Shenouda from visiting. Two monks were shot dead outside the monastery's gate by suspected militants in 1993. Two years earlier, a monk was murdered by local farmers in dispute with the monastery over land.

Tawadros received a hero's welcome at the monastery Monday, with scores of black-clad monks lined up and waiting singing hymns and burning incense on his arrival.

Outside the monastery's walls, a replica of those protecting Jerusalem's old city, several thousand waited for hours to catch a glimpse of him and went into frenzy when his motorcade arrived.

Assertive but calm, the 60-year-old pope took issue in the AP interview with references to Egypt's Christians as a minority, underlining that the community — which is believed to make up about 10 percent of the country's 85 million people — must be seen as having an equal voice with the Muslim majority.

"We are a part of the soil of this nation and an extension of the pharaohs and their age before Christ. Yes, we are a minority in the numerical sense, but we are not a minority when it comes to value, history, interaction and love for our nation," he said.

The patriarch also criticized the country's new constitution, which Morsi's Islamist allies rammed through to approval in December, angering opponents who said the move reflected the determination of the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies to impose their way without building consensus.

The document allows for a far stricter implementation of Islamic Shariah law than in the past, raising opponents' fears that it could bring restrictions on many civil liberties and the rights of women and Christians.

"The only common bond between all Egyptians is that they are all citizens ... the constitution, the base for all laws, must be under the umbrella of citizenship and not a religious one," he said. "Subsequently, some clauses were distorted by a religious slant and that in itself is discrimination because the constitution is supposed to unite and not divide.

Morsi has repeatedly pledged the dialogue will identify the disputed clauses and agree on amendments. But many doubt this will happen, given his fellow Islamists' resolve to protect the document in its current form.

Tawadros said he hopes for changes after the next parliamentary and presidential elections due respectively around April and in 2016.

"Maybe the constitution will change with the next parliamentary and presidential elections. Or maybe it will temporarily stay unchanged and be amended later," he said.

Even under Mubarak's rule, Christians complained of widespread official discrimination and said police failed to move against those accused in attacks on Christians or on churches.

Egypt has seen a string of such attacks, before and after Mubarak's fall — sometimes the result of local feuds that take on a sectarian nature, sometimes outright sectarian attacks. In the past two years, hardline Islamists have also become more open in their anti-Christian rhetoric.

Speaking to the AP, Tawadros borrowed a leaf from his own monastic past to counsel Egypt's Christians.

"Keep the hope, work earnestly and lift your heart with prayers that could make miracles."

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