Agence France-Presse CAIRO: Priest Maximus I has decided to break away from the Egyptian Coptic Church under Pope Shenuda III and form his own alternative church.
The church has never known a pontificate as bad as Shenuda s, and Egypt has never lived sectarian clashes as they have under him, said the self-proclaimed Archbishop Maximus I.
Maximus has said he plans to appoint bishops around the country, in what some perceive as the first split in the Egyptian Coptic Church to which most Christians in Egypt belong.
A group of Coptic lawyers on Tuesday announced that they were initiating legal proceedings against Maximus for insulting Pope Shenuda III.
But Maximus justifies the need for a new Church in Egypt, by saying that Shenuda, who has headed the Coptic Church since 1971, has incited sectarian violence in the country.
In an interview with the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, Maximus accused Shenuda of having thrown fuel on the fire by inciting Copts to take arms and to retaliate against Muslims.
Maximus, with a neatly trimmed beard and thin-rimmed glasses, brags about U.S.-backing for his new church and insists that he has about half a million followers.
No one has ever heard of this charlatan, said Mounir Fakhri Abdel Nour, a Coptic politician and leader in the liberal Al-Wafd party.
There is only one Church and only one Pope, insisted Abdel Nour, who says that Copts have always refused any foreign intervention in their affairs.
The fact that this man boasts U.S. support will automatically distance him from the people, he told AFP.
This person was chased from the Church. He is a heretic who only represents himself, said Morkos Aziz, who is in charge of the Al-Mouallaka parish, one of the most significant in Cairo.
The timing of the whole affair is sensitive but not coincidental, some say.
Over the past month, Shenuda has been undergoing medical treatment in the United States and Germany, and is due back in Cairo on July 9.
News of the 83-year-old Pope s ill health has sparked discussion in the Coptic community and beyond as to who will be the future Pope.
The timing of Maximus s campaign serves the purposes of certain parties in whose interest it is to divide and weaken the Church, said Abdel Nour, without identifying those parties.
The controversial Shenuda, who is the 117th Pope since Mark the Evangelist, patriarch of the Coptic Church, has been equally praised and criticized during his tenure.
He has been criticized by some for following the Egyptian government line under President Hosni Mubarak.
During the 2005 presidential elections, Shenuda declared his backing for Mubarak in the country s first ever multi-candidate elections.
But his pro-Palestinian stance and his refusal to accept normalization of relations between Egypt and Israel has won him favor with many.
Shenuda famously banned Copts from performing pilgrimage to Jerusalem while it is under Israeli occupation.
All this, according to Coptic deputy Georgette Kallini, opens the door for a more pro-U.S. church in Egypt.
The Coptic Church does not adhere to [political] U.S. positions and it is therefore normal that Washington creates another one which would follow orders, she told AFP.
The U.S. embassy in Cairo, however, was quick to reject the accusations.
It s absolutely untrue, U.S. embassy spokesman John Berry told AFP. There is no way we are interfering in the affairs of the Coptic Church, he said. But Maximus is confident that his church will take off.
We have presented the church papers to the interior ministry and I know, 100 percent, that we will get approved, he said.
An observer said the rebel priest would not be talking so boldly had he not been given at least an informal nod from the authorities.
He preaches and receives worshippers at his church in Moqattam (in Cairo). This would have been impossible without the implied approval of the authorities, researcher Magdi Girgis told AFP.
Maximus insists that by creating this new church he is not trying to override Shenuda.
I am not trying to isolate him and he also cannot isolate me because we each have our own church, he said.
Copts in Egypt make up between six and 10 percent of the 72-million population.