Egypt is recalling its Vatican envoy for consultations over remarks by Pope Benedict XVI on Coptic Christians seen as an "interference" in its affairs, the foreign ministry said on Tuesday.
The action follows "new statements from the Vatican concerning Egypt which are considered by Egypt as unacceptable interference in its internal affairs," the ministry spokesman said in an apparent reference to remarks concerning Copts.
The pontiff has expressed repeatedly his solidarity with the Copts and called on world leaders to protect them in the aftermath of a New Year's Day church bombing that killed 21 people as worshippers emerged from midnight mass in Alexandria.
"Egypt asked its ambassador in the Vatican to come to Cairo for consultation after the Vatican's new statements that touch on Egyptian affairs and which Egypt considers an unacceptable interference in its internal affairs," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said in a statement sent to Reuters.
"Cairo is keen to communicate with the Vatican after its statements following the terrorist incident in Alexandria that took place earlier this month".
A day after the attack on the al-Qiddissin (The Saints) church, the pope appealed for the "concrete and constant engagement of leaders of nations," in what he termed a "difficult mission."
At his New Year's Day mass, Benedict underscored that "humanity cannot display resignation in the face of negative forces of selfishness and violence, it cannot get accustomed to conflicts which claim victims and endanger the future of people."
On Sunday Benedict again voiced solidarity with Egypt's Copts -- two days after they marked their Christmas, celebrated on January 7.
"I salute the Coptic faithful present here to whom I renew my expression of closeness," the pope told thousands of people gathered in Saint Peter's Square.
Benedict has already come under harsh criticism for speaking out for the Copts.
Egypt's top Muslim cleric, Ahmed al-Tayeb, criticized the pope's call on world leaders to defend the Copts as interference in his country's affairs.
"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?" the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the oldest Islamic seat of learning and Sunni Muslim authority, told a news conference on January 2.
The Vatican immediately rejected the accusation, saying the head of the Roman Catholic Church had shown solidarity with the Coptic community as well as concern for the consequences of the violence for the Christian and Muslim population.
"Therefore we cannot see how the pope's approach to bring everybody to accept non-violence can be considered meddling," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.
"I think there are misunderstandings in communication but I don't think we should play up the imam's statement."
Lombardi said the Vatican referred to "an attack against a Christian church and therefore we are concerned about Christian minorities but that does not mean that we will justify or minimize violence against the faithful of other religions."
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the Alexandria church attack, which came after threats to Egypt's Copts from the al-Qaeda-linked group in Iraq that claimed an October 31 attack on a Baghdad cathedral.
Copts account for 10 percent of Egypt's mostly Muslim population of 80,000 million, and are the largest Christian community in the Middle East.