US-based religious group challenges Coptic church
CAIRO, July 11- A Greek Orthodox fringe group based in the United States has angered Egypt's largest and oldest church by sending an Egyptian bishop with liberal ideas to Cairo to win followers among Egyptian Christians.
Bishop Maximus played down theological differences with other orthodox churches at a news conference on Tuesday, but spoke in favour of allowing bishops to marry and allowing divorce on grounds other than adultery -- positions rejected by the head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox church, Pope Shenouda.
Shenouda, speaking to the Ala al-Hawa television programme, said on Monday no one recognised Maxiumus's credentials but simple people might mistake him for a mainstream church leader.
Maximus's church has also been organising pilgrimages to places in the Holy Land, which the Coptic Orthodox church does not allow out of solidarity with Palestinians.
Most of Egypt's Christians, who account for between five and 10 percent of the country's 73 million people, are members of the Coptic Orthodox church. Most Egyptians are Muslim.
Foreign denominations including protestants have set up Coptic branches and attracted Egyptian followers, but Maximus's group appears to be the first direct competitor from within the Orthodox family of churches.
EXPELLED FROM CHURCH
Although Egyptian born and Coptic Orthodox raised, Maximus was ordained bishop for Egypt and the Middle East in 2005 by a group of Greek Old Calendarists based in Seward, Nebraska.
The Old Calendarists are ultratraditionalists who rejected the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1924. They have not previously had an organised following in Egypt.
The Egyptian media have portrayed Maximus's small movement as a schism within the Coptic Orthodox church, which derives its authority from the congregation led by the apostle St Mark in Alexandria in the earliest days of Christianity.
Maximus denied his movement was schismatic, saying his relationship with the Coptic Orthodox church ended more than a quarter of a century ago, alluding to his expulsion in 1976 while serving as a deacon of a Cairo church.
Coptic church representatives say he was expelled for teaching unorthodox theology. "I don't know what upset them," Maximus said.
Maximus has accused Shenouda of promoting sectarian strife in Egypt, where relations between Christians and the majority Muslims are sometimes fraught.
In an interview with the newspaper Al Masry Al Youm this month, Maximus said Shenouda had purged the church of anyone who disagreed with him. "The church throughout its history has never seen an era like the Pope Shenouda era. It has been absolutely the worst for the Coptic people," he said.
Shenouda, 82, returned from medical treatment in Germany on Sunday. He told reporters he had spoken to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak but not about Bishop Maximus's church.
Mubarak, whose government has the power to decide which religious sects can operate in Egypt, said in an interview published on Tuesday he does not intervene in church matters. "The Copts are able to solve their problems by themselves without intervention," he told el-Masa newspaper.
(Reporting by Jonathan Wright and Aziz El-Kaissouni)