CAIRO (AP) — Pope Tawadros II led his first Easter Mass as head of the ancient Coptic Church in Egypt praying for security and prosperity on Saturday at the same cathedral that was the site of sectarian clashes weeks earlier.
The Orthodox Easter mass, meant to be a religious celebration that marks the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion, took place amid increased attacks on churches.
Egypt’s Orthodox Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the country’s 90 million people, have long complained of discrimination. Clashes between Muslims and Christians have become more frequent after a breakdown in security following the ouster of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak from power in a 2011 uprising.
It also comes as the country is deeply polarized, with secularist liberals, Christians and some Muslims deeply angry with the direction of the country and at odds with a largely Islamist bloc that supports President Mohammed Morsi.
The divisions played out in the church when the pope read out a list of names of Cabinet officials who had greeted the pope by phone. The crowd erupted in roaring applause at the naming of Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb of al-Azhar, the head of the Sunni Muslim world’s pre-eminent seat of learning, who is believed to be in a power tussle with the president’s Muslim Brotherhood backers. The crowd also applauded when Sheik Mazhar Shahin was named. The cleric who preaches at a mosque overlooking Tahrir Square, the epicenter of anti-government protests, had been temporarily suspended after a citizen complained that his sermons were critical of Morsi.
The evening prayer service, which lasted for several hours, was tightly guarded. High-level police officials, the US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, as well as Muslim figures opposed to Morsi attended the mass.
The president sent a representative — the country’s housing minister— to attend the prayer and Morsi spoke to the pope and the heads of other Christian churches in Egypt to greet them on the occasion.
Despite the display of unity, some religious figures have been accused of flaming sectarian tensions. Last month, residents of the area of Khusoos, a town just north of Cairo, said a local cleric incited violence against Christians after a Christian man killed his Muslim neighbor. They say the cleric called out on loud speakers for all Muslims with weapons to head out into the streets and protect their homes against Christian attacks. Four Christians were killed in ensuing clashes. The incident is being investigated by prosecutors.
The funeral for the four was an intense emotional outcry of anger against Morsi. Worshipers and mourners chanted against his rule and against his powerful Muslim Brotherhood group.
Immediately after the funeral, an angry mob threw firebombs and rocks at the cathedral. The violence left two people dead. One was identified as a Christian. Policemen had fired tear gas into the cathedral’s grounds during the clashes, further stoking anger.
In a rare rebuke after the incident, the Egyptian pope last month criticized Morsi for not protecting the St. Mark Church, which also serves as the papal seat. Morsi had said that he considered the attack on the church on attack on him personally.
More recently, controversy brewed over comments by a Brotherhood leader who said that greetings to Christians should not compromise Islamic teachings.
But on Saturday, Saad el-Katatni, the head of the Brotherhood group’s political party, wrote on Facebook an Easter greeting and prayed for unity.
“Egypt will not rise unless with the wings of all its Muslim and Christian children,” he wrote. “Our Coptic brothers are our partners in this country.”
Muslims believe in Jesus as a prophet, but do not believe as Christians do that he was the son of God. Muslim men are also permitted to marry Christian women, as the Muslim Prophet Muhammad had.
Head of the opposition Congress Party and former longtime Arab League chief Amr Moussa told The Associated Press from inside Cairo’s main cathedral during mass that “Egypt is in a crisis.”
“We will not get out of this crisis unless we are united,” he said.