VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Benedict XVI denounced the “vile and murderous” New Year’s Day killing of 21 Egyptian Christians, and was rebuked by Egypt’s top Muslim cleric for an “unacceptable interference in Egypt’s affairs.”
Benedict made his remarks on Sunday (Jan. 2) to crowds in St. Peter’s Square, following his weekly public recital of the Angelus prayer.

The pope called the killings, by a car bomb that exploded outside a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt, a “vile and murderous gesture, like that of placing bombs near the houses of Christians in Iraq to force them to leave.”

Bombs killed two people in Baghdad, Iraq, on Dec. 30 in the latest attacks on the Christian minority there. The pope has repeatedly lamented the exodus of Christians from Iraq amid violence following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

In two other recent outbreaks of what Benedict has denounced as “Christianophobia,” six people were killed at two Christian churches in northeastern Nigeria on Christmas Eve, and at least six were injured by a bomb at a Catholic church on the island of Jolo in the Philippines on Dec. 25.

Benedict on Sunday encouraged Christians to “persevere in the faith and in the witness of non-violence” in the face of “these strategies of violence, which aim against Christians but have consequences on the entire population.”

Later the same day, according to the Middle East News Agency, the grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University criticized Benedict’s remarks as inappropriate and biased.

“I disagree with the pope’s view,” said Ahmed al-Tayeb, “and I ask why did the pope not call for the protection of Muslims when they were subjected to killings in Iraq?”

Tayeb was among the Muslim leaders who met on Sunday with Pope Shenouda III, leader of Egypt’s Coptic Christians, at his headquarters in Cairo. The streets outside were later the scene of violence by Christians protesting the previous day’s attack.

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