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Egypt president makes rare visit to Coptic pope

  • Article by: HAMZA HENDAWI
  • Associated Press
  • January 5, 2014 - 12:35 PM

CAIRO — Egypt's interim president on Sunday made a rare visit to the Coptic pope ahead of this week's Orthodox Christmas celebrations, underlining efforts by the military-backed government to project an image of inclusion ahead of a crucial referendum later this month.

The highly symbolic visit to Pope Tawadros II at the papal seat at Cairo's St. Mark's Cathedral by Adly Mansour was the first such visit since socialist leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser attended the cathedral's consecration ceremony more than 40 years ago.

Mansour's visit underlined the secular outlook of the military-installed government and signals a dramatic departure from the sectarian rhetoric of some of the more radical allies of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi during his one year in power and the tension and distrust that defined their relations with Christians.

St. Mark's Cathedral was attacked by a mob in April last year, an event that heightened Christians' concern over Morsi's rule and laid bare their vulnerability. Morsi quickly condemned the violence, saying attacking the cathedral was like attacking him personally. But, in an unprecedented direct criticism, Pope Tawadros accused him of failing to protect the cathedral. It was the first ever attack on the papal seat of the Egyptian Orthodox church.

Morsi, who had consistently maintained that he was president for all Egyptians, was ousted by a popularly backed coup on July 3 and is now on trial on charges that carry the death sentence.

"The visit will send a signal that things are very different from Morsi's days," said Egypt expert Michael W. Hanna of the New York-based Century Foundation. "It's a different style and is likely to have a positive impact on the Copts," said Hanna, who contends that this month's vote could witness a change in the traditionally low turnout by Christian voters.

A draft constitution Egyptians will vote on later this month in a nationwide referendum enshrines equality between all Egyptians and instructs the next parliament to legislate a new law that will facilitate the construction and upkeep of churches. The post-Morsi administration hopes the draft, a heavily amended version of an Islamist-tilted charter adopted under Morsi in 2012, will receive a comfortable "yes" majority in the Jan. 14-15 referendum to enshrine the legitimacy of the regime and allow it to move confidently to the next step of its political transition plan: presidential and parliamentary elections.

Egypt's Christians account for some 10 percent of the nation's 90 million people. Mostly members of the Orthodox church, one of Christendom's oldest, they long have complained of discrimination by the nation's Muslim majority.

They have heavily invested in the anti-Morsi movement in the hope of gaining equal rights with their Muslim compatriots after his removal.

A large Christian turnout in this month's referendum will be vastly helpful in gaining the comfortable "yes" vote, especially in parts of southern Egypt where Christians comprise as much as 35 percent of the population and Islamists loyal to Morsi wield vast influence. Mansour's Sunday visit may not have been designed to canvass Christian "yes" votes, but it will go a long way in comforting members of the minority about their future.

"The visit is an expression of the appreciation by the Egyptian state of its Christian citizens who have offered a great deal while standing side by side with their Muslim brethren for the nation's glory," said presidential spokesman Ehab Badawi.

Morsi, a longtime leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, complained in a public speech just days before his ouster that leaders of the church came to see him wearing insincere smiles, and accused them of being unnecessarily afraid of Islamist rule. Morsi's Islamist allies adopted sectarian rhetoric and charged that Christians were key instigators of street protests against Morsi's rule.

For his part, Pope Tawadros rejecting the 2012 constitution adopted that, in his view, was discriminatory and compromised the human rights of Egyptians. The Coptic pontiff, enthroned in late 2012, has publicly endorsed the coup.

In August, Morsi supporters destroyed, looted or burned dozens of churches and church-linked facilities across Egypt. Christian homes and businesses also were attacked. The wave of anti-Christian violence followed the breakup of two sit-in protests by Morsi supporters by security forces in an operation that killed hundreds. Some Christians complain that security forces had expected the attacks but failed to take measures to prevent them or to defend them and that work has yet to begin on the reconstruction of the destroyed churches nearly five months after the attacks.

In a separate development, a Cairo court on Sunday convicted prominent activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, his sister Mona, and 10 others for their part in a 2012 attack against the election headquarters of former presidential candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, also the last prime minister to serve under autocrat Hosni Mubarak. All 12 defendants received a suspended 12-month prison sentence.

Shafiq's election headquarters was torched in May 2012, in the run-up to the runoff vote between him and Morsi. Shafiq has since withdrawn the charges against the activists, but the Morsi-appointed chief prosecutor at the time referred the case to a criminal court last year.

The two siblings were leading figures in the protest movement that forced Mubarak to step down in 2011. Both have vigorously campaigned against military trials for civilians under the rule of the generals who took over from Mubarak. They supported the removal of Morsi but strongly disapprove of the military's return to politics and the harsh crackdown by authorities on the Brotherhood.

Abdel-Fattah, who was not present in Sunday's hearing, is in police custody over separate charges that he broke a recently adopted law that places stringent conditions on street protests.

Sunday's ruling follows last month's conviction and sentencing of three other prominent activists for breaking the same law. They were sentenced to three years in prison, but they are appealing the verdict.

Relations between the military-backed authorities and icons of the 2011 uprising have soured, with the activists accusing the pro-military media of trying to cast that revolution as a foreign-backed plot. They also charge that the military-installed government is allowing Mubarak-era figures to make a comeback to public life and shirking its responsibility to seek retribution for the families of hundreds of protesters killed during the 2011 protests and after.

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Associated Press writer Maggie Hyde contributed to this report.

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