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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 July 2006, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
Egyptians sue new church leader
By Heba Saleh
BBC News, Cairo

Pope Shenouda III
The alternative Coptic church is a challenge to Pope Shenouda III
A group of Coptic Christians have started legal proceedings against a bishop who has said he is setting up an alternative orthodox church in Egypt.

Father Maximus I appointed himself the head of a holy congregation and plans to appoint bishops all over Egypt.

His opponents say he is trying to split the Coptic Orthodox Church to which most Egyptian Christians belong.

Father Maximus I says his church is an attempt to restore the church to the path set by its early founders.

But his opponents accuse him of being an impostor who has no right to appoint himself head of an alternative Coptic Orthodox Church.

There are some seven million Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt and theirs is the largest and oldest church in the country.

It is headed by Pope Shenouda III, who is currently undergoing medical treatment in Europe.

Falling out

Pope Shenouda expelled Father Maximus from the Ecclesiastical School in the 1970s as a result of his writings.

Egyptian Copts at prayer
7m population
Copts are Christians descended from ancient Egyptians
Split from the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in 451AD

Father Maximus then went to the United States where he was appointed bishop in one of the orthodox churches there.

Now back in Egypt, he is accusing Pope Shenouda's leadership of being the worst in the church's history, saying that his actions have deepened sectarian tensions with the Muslim majority.

Father Maximus is also critical of the Egyptian Church's near-total ban on divorce.

He speaks with confidence about the bright future of his new church.

But experts say Egyptian Copts are deeply conservative and it will be extremely difficult to convince them to leave their ancient mother church.

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