Egypt recalls ambassador to protest Pope comments

CAIRO -- Egypt recalled its ambassador to the Vatican after Pope Benedict XVI demanded that certain countries, including Egypt, do more to ensure Christians can practice their faith without discrimination or violence, a spokesman said Tuesday.

In a speech Monday to ambassadors accredited to the Vatican, Benedict cited recent attacks on Christians in Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria, and said these governments must take more effective measures to protect religious minorities.

Hossam Zaki, a spokesman for Egypt's Foreign Ministry described Benedict's remarks as "unacceptable" and charged him with interfering in the country's internal affairs.

"Egypt will not allow non-Egyptians to interfere in its internal affairs under any pretext," he said.

Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayyib, imam of the Al-Azhar, the premier institute of Islamic learning in the Sunni Muslim world also blasted the Pope's remarks.

"Protection of Christians is an internal affair and should be carried out by the governments as they (the Christians) are their citizens like other citizens," he said in a statement.

"We reiterate our rejection of foreign interference in the internal affairs of Arab and Islamic countries under whatever pretexts," he added.

A bomb attack killed 21 worshippers at an Alexandria church on the New Year's Eve, sparking accusations by Egypt's Christians that the government does not protect them and reopening long standing wounds over allegations of discrimination.

The pope spoke out against the attack and demanded better protection for Christians.

"In Egypt too, in Alexandria, terrorism brutally struck Christians as they prayed in church. This succession of attacks is yet another sign of the urgent need for the governments of the region to adopt, in spite of difficulties and dangers, effective measures for the protection of religious minorities," he said.

President Hosni Mubarak has repeatedly said that the government will do its utmost to protect Egypt's Christians and has accused foreign groups of being behind the church attack, which has sparked a wave of angry protests by Christians in the country.