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Coptic pope's criticism of president marks trend in Egypt, where no one is above the fray

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CAIRO - Egypt's Coptic Christian pope delivered an unprecedented direct criticism of the Islamist president Tuesday after a mob attack on the church's main cathedral, saying he had failed to protect the building and warning that the country is collapsing.

The comments by Pope Tawadros II and the cathedral attack itself illustrate a new reality in Egypt, where institutions long seen as above the fray are being dragged into the country's intense polarization and political violence.

Egypt has become increasingly divided between two camps, with President Mohammed Morsi and Islamist allies on one side and an opposition made up of moderate Muslims, Christians and liberals on the other, a schism essentially over the country's political future after decades of dictatorship. Opponents accuse Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood of seeking to monopolize power, while Morsi's allies say the opposition is trying to destabilize the country to derail the elected leadership.

Traditionally, a number of state icons were considered untouchable politically — nationalist pillars vital for the state's stability and so too important to be criticized or mired in disputes. But one by one, they have been sucked into the country's divisions, whether under pressure to take sides or outright plunged into controversy.

The military was pulled into politics early on when it took power following the February 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak and ruled for nearly 17 months. The courts became the centre of controversy last year, with repeated confrontations between Morsi's administration and members of the judiciary.

Now, not only the Coptic Church but also the country's most eminent Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, are getting caught up in the turmoil.

Tawadros' remarks Tuesday in a telephone interview with the private ONTV network were his first direct criticism of Morsi since he was enthroned in November as the spiritual leader of Egypt's Orthodox Coptic Christians. Christians make up an estimated 10 per cent of Egypt's 90 million people.

Tawadros said Morsi had promised him in a telephone conversation to do everything to protect the St Mark Cathedral, which also serves as the papal seat.

"But in reality he did not," Tawadros said. When asked to explain, he said: It "comes under the category of negligence and poor assessment of events." He did not make clear whether he was accusing Morsi himself of negligence or whether he was addressing the president's government.

In violence Sunday, an angry mob of Muslims threw firebombs and rocks at the Coptic cathedral in Cairo, leaving two people dead. One of the two was identified as a Christian.

The attack followed a funeral service for four Christians killed in sectarian clashes in a town north of Cairo, which also left a Muslim dead, the deadliest sectarian violence since Morsi came to office as Egypt's first freely elected president.

Tawadros warned, "This is a society that is collapsing. Society is collapsing every day."

"The church has been a national symbol for 2,000 years," he said. "It has not been subjected to anything like this even during the darkest ages ... There has been no positive and clear action from the state, but there is a God. The church does not ask for anyone's protection, only from God."

Morsi strongly condemned the recent violence and said that he considered any attack on the cathedral to be an attack on him personally. He also ordered an investigation into the violence and revived a state body called the National Council for Justice and Equality mandated to promote equality between Egyptians regardless of their religious and ethnic background.

On Tuesday, four of his top aides visited the cathedral to offer their condolences for the victims of the violence.

A presidential statement issued late Tuesday reasserted Morsi's commitment to protect the Coptic church and to bring to justice those behind the violence. It described the president's order to revive the council as a "serious initial step."

Also in an earlier statement, the office of Morsi's assistant for foreign relations underlined that the presidency rejects violence "in all forms and under any pretext" and that "all Egyptians are citizens who should enjoy all rights and are equal before the law." It said the presidency has ordered authorities to "to exert their utmost efforts to contain the situation and protect the lives and property of citizens."

Speaking to reporters in Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell urged Morsi to make good on his promise of a full investigation and to make public the findings.

"The failure to prosecute perpetrators of sectarian crimes has contributed to an environment of impunity in Egypt, and so we are concerned," he said.

Still, Tawadros was critical of the promises of investigation and the revival of the justice and equality body. "Enough already of formations, committees and groups and whatever else," he said. "We want action not words and, let me say this, there are many names and committees but there is no action on the ground."

Long before the weekend's deadly sectarian violence, Tawadros has gone on record saying he was unhappy with the Islamist-backed constitution that was rushed to passage in a referendum in December.

But his criticism Tuesday was a powerful departure from the church's longstanding policy of avoiding confrontations with the government of the day. Pointedly, Tawadros added his praise of the sheik of Al-Azhar — another institution struggling to stay immune from the country's political battles — saying the sheik was the first to call him and express support amid Sunday's violence.

Al-Azhar, the centuries-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning, was hit by the turmoil last week. Students from Al-Azhar University stormed the office of the sheik of Al-Azhar, Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb, angry over a case of food poisoning in the university that sickened dozens. El-Tayeb was forced to remove the university's president.

Some Al-Azhar clerics and opponents of Islamists charged that the Muslim Brotherhood was behind the protests, trying to embarrass el-Tayeb. Some in Al-Azhar, which is touted as a centre for religious moderation, believe the Brotherhood or more hardline Islamists want to replace el-Tayeb to install one of their own in the post.

In an interview with ONTV this week, an aide to el-Tayeb, Mahmoud Azab, suggested the protest seemed "politicized," adding, "We hope that is not the case... We hope that the path of Al-Azhar toward unifying the Egyptian people will not be obstructed" — though he later issued a statement insisting his comments were not directed at any group.

In a statement Saturday, the Brotherhood denied any role in the protest, blaming "counter-revolution forces who control certain media outlets" for spreading the idea to create tensions between the group and el-Tayeb.

"Our relationship is good, and our respect for the institution of Al-Azhar and its imam is immense," it said.

But the questions swirling around so many institutions at once have fueled the sense of instability among many Egyptians, on top of the country's mounting economic woes and the struggle to end lawlessness on the streets that has been pervasive since Mubarak's fall.

Some of Morsi's opponents have called on the military to step back in to a direct role in politics. The generals have said nothing publicly on such calls, but its leaders have made it clear on several occasions they were the ultimate guarantors of the nation's stability and would not hesitate to intervene if things go out of control.

Morsi's tussles with the judiciary — including a recent court order annulling his installation of a new top prosecutor late last year — have deeply divided the country. Opponents accuse Morsi of trying to undermine the courts, a claim the presidency denies, while Morsi supporters often depict some in the judiciary as counter-revolutionaries trying to stop his agenda.

In its statement Saturday, the Brotherhood blasted what it called "libel, slander and misinformation" that it said were aimed at causing divisions between the group and the military or judiciary.

"We have great faith in the wisdom of Egypt's national and religious institutions, and that they cannot be fooled by counter-revolutionary conspiracies that plot against the homeland and the people who have known the Brotherhood for decades," it said.

___

AP correspondent Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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