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CAIRO - Egypt's top Muslim cleric on Sunday criticised Pope Benedict XVI's call for world leaders to defend Christians

Tayeb met with Shenouda III to find solutions

Egypt's Tayeb asks Benedict: why didn't you call for protection of Muslims being killed in Iraq?



 as interference in his country's affairs, the official MENA news agency reported.

The call, following a deadly church car-bombing in northern Egypt, was "unacceptable interference in Egypt's affairs," Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the oldest Islamic seat of learning, told reporters.

"I disagree with the pope's view, and I ask why did the pope not call for the protection of Muslims when they were subjected to killings in Iraq?" he said at a news conference.

Benedict at a New Year's Mass at the Vatican appealed for the "concrete and constant engagement of leaders of nations" to protect Christians in the Middle East, in what he termed a "difficult mission."

In the wake of rising tension and "especially discrimination, abuse and religious intolerance which are today striking Christians in particular, I once again launch a pressing appeal not to give in to discouragement and resignation," he said.

Tayeb, who renewed his condemnation of the New Year's Eve church bombing which cost 21 lives, said Azhar, the highest institute in Sunni Islam, would form a joint committee with the Coptic Church to resolve disputes between the communities.

The committee, which should begin its work in two weeks, will "discuss reasons for deterioration (in Muslim-Copt ties) and propose appropriate solutions," he said.

Tayeb later met with the head of Egypt's Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda III, at his headquarters in Cairo's St Mark Cathedral.

But several dozen Coptic protesters chanted at Tayeb: "We don't want you" and banged on his car as he left.

Sectarian tensions have mounted throughout the past year, which began with a massacre of six Copts and a Muslim security man outside a church in a village of southern Egypt. Three Muslim men are on trial for that attack.

Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 80-million people, complain of discrimination and have been the targets of sectarian attacks.

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