CAIRO, (AP) – Egypt’s top Islamic institution criticized a senior Coptic bishop who reportedly disputed the authenticity of some verses of the Quran, warning that the statement threatened Egypt’s national unity.
Bishop Bishoy, head of the Coptic Church’s theological council and considered its No. 2 official, was quoted in Egyptian media reports as saying last week that some verses were inserted into the Muslim holy book after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Muslim belief says the prophet received all verses through the archangel Gabriel during his lifetime.
Tension between Egypt’s Muslims and its Coptic minority are increasing over issues like the construction of new churches, bitter arguments over conversions and theological disputes. The two communities generally live in peace, though clashes and attacks have taken place.
“Such irresponsible statements threaten … national unity at a time when it is vital to maintain it,” said a statement Saturday from Al-Azhar, the world’s most important center of Sunni Muslim scholarship.
Reflecting the depth of concern that the recent tension could spark violence, Al-Azhar held an emergency meeting Saturday of its Islamic Research Center to discuss the statement.
In a lecture Wednesday, Bishoy said certain verses in the Quran were inserted after Muhammad’s death by one of his successors, according to Egyptian media reports.
“My question as to whether some verses of the Quran were inserted after the death of the prophet is not a criticism or accusation,” he was quoted as saying. “It is merely a question about a certain verse that I believe contradicts the Christian faith.”
An official from the Coptic Church refused to comment over the weekend or confirm the bishop made the remarks. Bishoy was quoted in Egyptian media reports as saying later that he was misunderstood.
Coptic leader Pope Shenouda III is expected to address the recent tension in an appearance Sunday night on Egyptian TV.
The leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood opposition group, Mohammed Badeea, urged Muslims to “respond to whoever slanders the book of God or the prophet.”
Also last week, Bishoy was quoted as saying in an interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper that “Muslims are only guests” in the country, sparking outrage.
Thousands of Muslims demonstrated on Friday to protest Bishoy’s remarks.
Seeking to cool the controversy, political parties and the press syndicate urged their members to stay away from the debate.
Coptic Christians make up around 6 to 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people and say they are subjected to systematic discrimination by the state.
Muslims argue that the Coptic Church is above state law, enjoying protections and safeguards not extended to society at large.
The tension occasionally spills over into violence. In January, a gunman killed six Copts and a Muslim guard in a drive-by shooting outside a church after a Christmas service in the southern town of Nag Hamadi, sparking days of rioting.