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Sep 21, 11:25 AM EDT

Egypt's Coptic church criticized over el-Sissi rallies at UN

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AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

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CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt's Coptic Christian church is facing criticism over its role in organizing rallies in support of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi during his visit to New York for the U.N. General Assembly.

Egypt's Christian minority, which accounts for about 10 percent of the nation's 91 million people, has strongly supported el-Sissi since he took office a year after the military, to the relief of most Christians, overthrew an elected Islamist president in 2013.

But on Wednesday, nearly 800 Christians, including authors, academics, activists and professionals, signed an online statement expressing concern about what they see as the church's deepening involvement in politics.

"We stress our opposition to Egyptian churches taking the lead in mobilizing demonstrations, regardless of whether they are for or against the president. It's a departure from the rules of democracy as well as dragging religion into politics," the statement said. "We urge Egyptian churches to stay clear of politics and restrict themselves to their spiritual and religious tasks."

El-Sissi traveled to New York with a large delegation of loyal parliamentarians and media figures. Two senior Christian clerics traveled there ahead of the president and met with Egyptian Christian expatriates to urge them to take part in rallies outside el-Sissi's residence and the U.N. headquarters.

Buses were lined up outside churches in New Jersey, home to a large Egyptian Coptic community, to take them to New York city. Activists on social media described the church's role as disgraceful, while others interpreted the reliance on the Christians for the New York rallies as sectarian.

The statement said that despite the "warm" relationship between el-Sissi's government and the church, "simple" Christians, especially in rural Egypt, continue to suffer from sectarian violence and discrimination.

El-Sissi's New York visit, which included meetings with foreign leaders as well as U.S. presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, is partially aimed at improving Egypt's image after it has come under criticism from rights groups and Western nations over a sweeping crackdown on dissent.

The Christian rallies - involving a few hundred people, many waving Egyptian flags or carrying posters of el-Sissi - were meant to show popular support for the president and discourage followers of Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president he removed in 2013, from staging protests against his rule.

Some of the president's past foreign visits were marred by protests by Morsi supporters against his rule or assaults against loyal journalists traveling with him.

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