Vatican wants to maintain ties with Al-Azhar

AFP, Thursday 20 Jan 2011

The Vatican responds to Al-Azhar's decision to suspend diplomatic ties over the pope's 'unacceptable interference' in Middle Eastern affairs

The Vatican said Thursday it wanted to continue its bi-annual meetings with Egypt's chief centre of Sunni Islamic learning, Al-Azhar, after it accused the pope of attacking Islam and suspended diplomatic ties.

"The pontifical council for inter-religious dialogue's line of openness and desire to dialogue is unchanged," said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.

Lombardi added that the council was "in the process of gathering together the necessary information in order to understand the situation well."

The decision to suspend the dialogue came after an extraordinary meeting of Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy, chaired by Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb.

An advisor to Sheikh Ahmed criticised remarks by the pontiff as interference in internal affairs.

"The pope has repeatedly alleged that non-Muslims are being persecuted in Muslim countries in the Middle East region, which is far from the truth and is an unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of Islamic countries," Sheikh Mahmoud Azab said in remarks carried by the official Mena news agency.

The current spat developed after a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a Coptic church in Egypt's Mediterranean port of Alexandria, killing 21 people and wounding dozens as they came out of a New Year's Eve mass.

Pope Benedict said the attack was "yet another sign of the urgent need for the governments of the region to adopt ... effective measures for the protection of religious minorities".

The remarks prompted Cairo to recall its envoy to the Vatican on 11 January.

"Egypt will not allow any non-Egyptian faction to interfere in its internal affairs under any pretext," the foreign ministry said. "The Coptic question is specifically an internal Egyptian affair."

A day after the bombing, Sheikh Ahmed himself said: "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?"

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," Lombardi said.

On Wednesday, Arab leaders at a summit in Egypt voiced their "total rejection" of foreign interference in Arab affairs over Christian minorities.

Copts account for 10 per cent of Egypt's mostly Muslim population of 80 million. They are the largest Christian community in the Middle East, which the Vatican says is home to 20 million Christians out of a total population of more than 356 million.

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