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Jul 25, 2:04 PM EDT

Egypt's Coptic Pope warns of increased attacks on Christians


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Egypt's Coptic Pope warns of increased attacks on Christians

CAIRO (AP) -- The leader of Egypt's Coptic Christian church warned on Monday of increased attacks on Christians, saying national unity is being "defaced."

In a meeting with lawmakers, Pope Tawadros II said that since 2013 there have been 37 sectarian attacks on Christians - nearly an incident a month. He describes the situation as "very painful."

He told lawmakers that preserving national unity is "our responsibility in front of the world, future generations, history and in front of God." His remarks were published on his personal website.

The Pope's website also quoted lawmaker Saad el-Gammal as saying that parliament is currently drafting a new law to criminalize actions that undermine national unity, as well as a law that regulates the construction of churches, which is severely restricted.

Christians make up 10 percent of Egypt's population and say they face discrimination by the country's Muslim majority.

Egypt's Orthodox Coptic Christians strongly supported Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's ouster of his Islamist predecessor, Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood group. Following Morsi's toppling, many Islamists claimed that Christians had conspired with the military against them. Attacks on Christian homes, businesses and churches subsequently surged in the south.

A string of attacks have hit the southern province of Minya in recent weeks. The province is home to a large Christian community, making up around 35 percent of the province's population, the largest among Egypt's 27 provinces. It is also home to a substantial concentration of extremist Islamic groups.

Last week, a Muslim mob stabbed a Christian to death over a personal feud. Days earlier, in two separate incidents, mobs attacked and torched houses of Christians over a rumor that they intended to convert buildings into churches. In May, a Muslim mob stripped an elderly Christian woman and paraded her on the street following a rumor that her son had an affair with a Muslim woman.

Speaking during a military graduation ceremony, Egypt's el-Sissi vowed to hold wrongdoers accountable. However, security forces have routinely released assailants within days after "reconciliatory" sessions between church officials and village elders.

Rights groups such as the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights have expressed concern over the "increasing frequency of sectarian violence in Minya" which it described as the main stage for assaults on Christians. The group documented 77 incidents of sectarian violence and tension in Minya alone since January 25, 2011, including ten incidents since January 2016. Sectarian violence has also been reported in other Egyptian provinces.

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