Egypt's top Muslim cleric on Sunday criticized Pope Benedict XVI's call for world leaders to defend Christians 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.
Dozens of Christians gathered inside a cathedral compound on Sunday to demand the state and church do more to help them.
One protester, Nader Shenouda, said: "When there was a threat from al Qaeda a month or a month and a half ago, did the government have to wait till the disaster happens before they (the government) protect us?"
Their protest coincided with a meeting between Pope Shenouda III and Sheikh Tayeb, the head.
But several dozen Coptic protesters chanted at Tayeb: "We don't want you" and banged on his car as he left.
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.
Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 79 million people. Tensions often flare between Christians and Muslims over issues such as building churches or close relationships between members of the two faiths.
Analysts said the attack was on a much bigger scale than typical sectarian flare-ups but said laws that make it easier to build a mosque than a church, and similar causes of Christian complaint, meant such an attack would fuel sectarian tension.
"Right now Copts feel Muslims (as a whole) struck at them, rather than seeing it as a terrorist attack by one Muslim, and it is due to this ... feeling of discrimination," said Hisham Kassem, a publisher and rights activist.
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.