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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 April, 2003, 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK
Hunger strike threat in church row
The church sit-in
Protesters are staging a sit-in at the church
Members of a church congregation in Sussex are threatening to go on hunger strike in a row over re-instating their priest.

The dispute at Hove's Orthodox Coptic Church of St Mary and St Abraam began at the start of the year.

Several members of the congregation claim their priest, who left in January, was forced into retirement when a new bishop was brought in.

The protesters now want their pope - Pope Shenouda III, who is based in Egypt - to rule on the issue.

Protests began when Father Zakaria left his post at the start of the year.

Father Zakaria
Father Zakaria left the Hove church in January

An election was held in the church to find new council members, commissioned by a delegation from Pope Shenouda III, led by Bishop Daniel.

But church members complained that Father Zakaria was subsequently driven out by Bishop Daniel, a charge denied by the bishop, who said his colleague had departed voluntarily.

Members of the congregation then staged a sit-in and a short term hunger strike in January but attempts since then to resolve the row have failed.

Another sit-in began this week with dozens of people refusing to leave the church to highlight their anger.

Followers number 10m

They have threatened to start another mass hunger strike, angered by the apparent lack of guidance from church elders.

Dr Naiem Hanna, chairman of the British Orthodox Christian Association, said: "We have asked our pope to review these measures, we have sent a lot of letters and a lot of faxes.

"But we haven't heard anything from him.

"He promised to solve this matter but we haven't received any solutions."

The Coptic Church is a branch of Orthodox Christianity with about 10 million followers around the world.

The Hove church is one of just a handful in the UK.

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