AL-MUHARRAQ MONASTERY, Egypt - Egypt's Coptic Christian pope sharply criticized the country's Islamist leadership in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, saying the new constitution is discriminatory and Christians should not be treated as a minority.
The comments by Pope Tawadros II reflected the unusually vocal political activist stance he has taken 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 power of Islamists in the country and the rule of President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Tawadros dismissed a national dialogue that Morsi has been holding, ostensibly as a way to broaden decision-making amid criticism that his government concentrates power in the Brotherhood. Most opposition parties have refused to join the dialogue, as has the Coptic Church, calling it mere window dressing
"We will actively take part in any national dialogue that would benefit the nation," Tawadros told The AP. "But when a dialogue ends before it starts and none of its results are implemented then we do not take part."
The 60-year-old pope took issue with references that Morsi has made to Christians as a minority, underlining that the community — which makes up about 10 per cent of the country's 85 million people [some claim there are 15 million Copts]— must be seen as having an equal voice with the Muslim majority.
"We are a part of the soil of this nation. We are not a minority when it comes to value, history and the love of our nation," he said, speaking during a visit to the historic al-Muharraq Monastery, a centuries-old site some 180 miles (300 kilometres) south of Cairo in the province of Assiut. [the Copts who remain as Copts are the descendants of those Egyptians who never succumbed to the "Arab gift" of Islam -- it is they who can lay claim to being the most authentic Egyptians, not those who first islamized and then arabized themselves]
He also criticized the constitution, which Morsi's Islamist allies rammed through to approval in December, angering opponents who said the move reflected the Brotherhood's determination to impose its way without building consensus. Provisions in the document allow for a far stricter implementation of Shariah than in the past, raising opponents' fears that it could bring restrictions on many civil liberties and the rights of women and Christians.
"Some clauses bore a religious slant, and that in itself is discrimination because constitutions are supposed to unite people not divide them," Tawadros said of the charter.
Tawadros' active public stance on politics 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.
Tawadros' predecessor, the late Shenouda III, was cautious about public criticism of Egypt's leadership, working instead in backroom arrangements. He close to former President Hosni Mubarak, who until his ouster in February 2011 was seen by many Christians as the community's protector against Islamists.
Nevertheless, 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 anti-Christian rhetoric.
Tawadros said Morsi's government must take greater action to prevent attacks on Christians.
"Realistically, we want actions not words. We don't want a show. Egypt has changed, we live in a new Egypt now."