John Hooper in Rome
January 11, 2011
Pope Benedict was tonight at the centre of a new diplomatic storm after Egypt recalled its ambassador to the Vatican in protest at the pontiff's call for Middle Eastern governments to do more to protect their Christian minorities.
Cairo's dramatic reaction came amid reports of a further attack in Egypt in which a Christian died.
The interior ministry said an off-duty policeman boarded a train in southern Egypt and opened fire, killing a 71-year-old man and wounding five other Christians, including the dead man's wife. The attack raises fears of a new wave of rioting by Christians still mourning the deaths of at least 21 worshippers as they were leaving mass at a Coptic church in Alexandria on New Year's Eve.
In a statement, a spokesman for the foreign ministry said Cairo's ambassador had been called back for consultations "after the Vatican's new statements that touch on Egyptian affairs and which Egypt considers an unacceptable interference in its internal affairs".
In a speech to diplomats accredited to the Holy See on Monday, the pope said the Alexandria bombing, coming after a string of attacks in Iraq, showed "the urgent need for the governments of the region to adopt, in spite of difficulties and dangers, effective measures for the protection of religious minorities".
Quoting from a message agreed by a synod of bishops last year that discussed the situation of Christians in the Middle East , the pope said they were loyal citizens who were entitled to "enjoy all the rights of citizenship, freedom of conscience, freedom of worship and freedom in education, teaching and the use of the mass media". He also praised European countries who had asked for action by the European Union to protect Middle Eastern Christians.
The foreign ministry's protest was echoed by Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayyib, the imam of the Al-Azhar, the leading institute of Islamic learning in the Sunni Muslim world. He said: "Protection of Christians is an internal affair and should be carried out by the governments as [Christians] are their citizens like other citizens." He added: "We reiterate our rejection of foreign interference in the internal affairs of Arab and Islamic countries under whatever pretexts."
In Rome, a senior Vatican official, said Egypt's reaction was "the proof that the things said by the pope have hit the mark". Monsignor Jean-Louis Bruguès, stressed he was speaking in a personal capacity.