CAIRO – The pre-eminent institute of Islamic learning in the Sunni Muslim world said Thursday it is freezing its dialogue with the Vatican to protest Pope Benedict XVI's recent remarks calling for the protection of Christians in Egypt.
The move from Cairo's Al-Azhar comes as Muslim-Christian tensions have been rising in Egypt following the New Year's bombing on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria that killed 21 people. Egypt's government has rejected international expressions of concern over the country's Christian minority as foreign meddling in its internal affairs.
Al-Azhar said in a statement that its governing council decided to halt the biannual inter-religious dialogue with the Vatican, which discusses Islamic-Christian affairs, during an emergency meeting Thursday. It said the freeze is "indefinite."
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said the Holy See's council for inter-religious dialogue remains committed to dialogue.
Al-Azhar linked its decision to remarks made by Benedict about "non-Muslims being oppressed by Muslim states in the Middle East."
"Pope Benedict ... has repeatedly addressed Islam negatively, more than once," the statement said. It was signed by Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy Secretary General Sheik Ali Abdel Dayem.
Following the suicide blast on the church in Alexandria — and other attacks on Christians in Iraq and Nigeria — Benedict called on governments in the region to protect Christians.
"This succession of attacks is yet another sign of the urgent need for the governments of the region to adapt, in spite of difficulties and dangers," the pope said in a speech Jan. 10 to diplomats.
Egypt, which is home to around 8 million Christians, bristled at the international expressions of concern over the safety of its Christians, and recalled its ambassador to the Vatican in protest.
Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib, the imam of Al-Azhar, also blasted the Pope's remarks, saying at the time that the "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."
Al-Azhar wields tremendous influence among millions of Sunni Muslim worldwide, and offers guidance on issues of faith in Egypt and other Islamic nations. It includes an extensive network of Islamic schools, a university and religious institutes that open their doors to Muslims from around the world.
In recent years, its top cleric has played a key role in promoting inter-religious dialogue.
Thursday's decision appeared to be part of a push by the Egyptian government to thwart what it perceives as a diplomatic drive by Western nations and the Vatican to get Middle Eastern governments to increase protection of Christians.
On Wednesday, an Arab leadership summit endorsed an Egyptian proposal to denounce "foreign interference in Arab affairs, especially over the region's Christian minorities."
"Arab kings and presidents ... express their total rejection of attempts by certain states and foreign parties to intervene in Arab affairs in the name of protecting the minorities of the East," the leaders said in their final statement after the summit in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has repeatedly said the government will do its utmost to protect 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.