The highest Islamic authority in Egypt, al-Azhar, will suspend all dialogue with the Vatican in response to the pope's condemnation of widespread violence and discrimination against Christian minorities in predominately Muslim countries.
Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, the president of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, met with members of the Islamic Research Academy before making the announcement Thursday morning. The group accused Pope Benedict of "repeatedly addressing Islam negatively, more than once," reported Islamic news website Ahram Online.
The decision follows calls by the Roman Catholic Church for the Egyptian government to ensure protection of the Coptic community after the New Year's bombing of the Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria, which left 23 dead and dozens injured.
"I renew my heartfelt appeal that fellow Egypt Christian citizens be able to live in security, continuing to contribute to the society in which they are fully members," Benedict said on Jan. 10.
Ambassador Hossam Zaki, the official spokesman of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry also criticized the appeal, labeling his demand as an "unacceptable interference in Egypt's affairs."
Earlier this month, the Egyptian Ambassador to the Vatican rejected claims that "the government, or some governments in the area, have not provided protection for Christians in the Middle East."
"We do not share the views that Christians are persecuted in our part of the world," Lamia Aly Mekhemar stated in an interview with Rome Reports. "They have all the protection as any other Egyptian citizen in Egypt."
The spokesman for the Vatican, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, told AsiaNews that "the line of openness and the desire for dialogue on the part of the Pontifical Council remain unchanged."
"The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, is gathering the necessary information to assess the situation, since it had not received any prior communication on the part of al-Azhar University in reference to the problem," said Lombardi.
About 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million people are Christian.