Egyptian Coptic activists filed a complaint on Wednesday with the General Persecution Office accusing state-run daily Al-Ahram of defaming Pope Shenouda III, head of Egypt’s Coptic Church, and inflaming sectarian tensions.
The move comes after Al-Ahram published a column on Monday that carried an unprecedented attack on Pope Shenouda III.
“We went to the General Prosecution Office in order to stop the attack on Copts and their spiritual leader by Al-Ahram,” Coptic Church lawyer Naguib Gebraeel told Al-Masry Al-Youm.
Gabriel’s complaint accuses the government broadsheet of libel, false reporting, the undermining of social stability, and incitement of sectarian unrest.
In his weekly column, Al-Ahram journalist Abdel Nasser Salama held Shenouda accountable for inciting sectarian hatred between Muslims and Christian for the last four decades.
“Concepts such as sectarianism, citizenship and the resort to foreign powers for support only began circulating in popular discourse when Shenouda assumed the papacy in 1971,” Salama wrote.
Shenouda became the 117th pope of the Egyptian Coptic Church in November, 1971.
Salama claims that the pope told a Coptic congregation in 1973 that, “By the year 2000, the number of Christians will be equal to that of Muslims, according to the plan the church is implementing.”
Coptic Christians are said to account for roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s population of some 80 million.
In the same address, Salama went on to write, the pope also “called for expelling the ‘Muslim invaders’” from Egypt.
According to Gebraeel, such statements amount to defamation.
“These accusations are illegal since they defame someone and make claims about things that never happened,” he said. “I repeat–this alleged address by Pope Shenouda III is a fiction.”
Coptic Bishop Sergius Sergius issued a statement on Tuesday accusing the writer of “agitating the state against the church.”
“The issue this time is highly sensitive,” said Gabraeel. “It’s not a writer accusing the Copts of something; it’s the official newspaper of the state launching an attack on the church’s spiritual leader. Pope Shenouda III represents a symbol for millions of Copts inside and outside Egypt.”
Al-Ahram, Egypt’s most widely-read state newspaper, published the article in its Monday print edition. It also ran the article on its website before abruptly removing it.
Al-Masry Al-Youm failed to obtain a reaction to the legal complaint from Al-Ahram. Al-Ahram Editor-in-Chief Osama Saraya acknowledged on the front page of the Wednesday edition that Salam had been “out of line,” but had only been motivated by his fears of rising sectarian tension.
Saraya added that Shenouda represented “a national symbol for all Egyptians” and was therefore “beyond being evaluated by anybody.”
Salam in his article also accused church officials of recently planning and staging demonstrations in northern Cairo in which several police officers were injured and two Coptic protesters were killed. “The huge number of Molotov cocktails thrown in the Omraniya church riot shows that churches can be used for stockpiling weapons.”
Shenouda denounced what he described as the excessive use of force against Christian protesters, who clashed with security forces after authorities halted construction of a local church. Along with two Coptic fatalities, 157 were arrested, while church property suffered significant material damage.
Last September, prominent Islamic scholar Selim al-Awah accused Egyptian Copts of maintaining their own armed militia and stocking arms and ammunition in the country’s monasteries and churches. These and similar remarks caused public uproar among Copts.
The church quickly dismissed the allegations, describing them as “false and baseless” and aimed at igniting sectarian strife.
Several Islamic groups, meanwhile, have staged demonstrations against the pope in various cities across Egypt, accusing the church of detaining a Christian woman who they allege attempted to convert to Islam. The church has denied the allegations, going on to hint that the state had turned a blind eye to the demonstrations.
“What was written was not a random article,” said Gebraeel in reference to Salama’s article. “The words reflect the government’s policy of not only marginalizing the Copts, but of also degrading them.”
On Sunday, Shenouda refrained from casting a ballot in Egypt’s parliamentary run-offs in a move that some experts believe signaled his growing disappointment with the ruling regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
In the first round of polling, Shenouda voted for the liberal opposition Wafd Party, clearly expressing frustration with the Mubarak regime. Previously, Shenouda had always called on Copts to vote for Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP).
Egypt’s Coptic minority has traditionally sided with the NDP, which, say some observers, it looks to for protection.