CAIRO--For weeks, the phone has been ringing inside the rambling stone church tucked into Cairo's scruffy and bustling Shubra district.

First, there was a woman asking if Pope John Paul II could baptize her son. The next caller was a man. Could he take communion from the pontiff?

"I said to them, `Listen, I'm not the head of protocol," chuckled Bishop Yohanna Golta, the elegant and garrulous head of the Coptic Catholic Church of Cairo, as he sipped late evening tea with a visitor. "I'm just a simple priest. But this is the excitement of Catholics and Orthodox Christians about the pope's visit to Egypt."

For the government, the papal trip--which begins Thursday-- is a diplomatic coup, since it comes ahead of a March visit to the Holy Land.

Nonetheless, the bishop's laughter is one of the lighter notes sounding these days, as the country mops up the fallout of a Christian-Muslim clash that is considered the most serious in years.

A January spat between a Coptic Christian shopkeeper and a Muslim housewife spilled into a bloody fray that killed some 20 people in the southern town of Al Kosheh.

The conflict has highlighted two conflicting assessments of the status of Egypt's Christian minority.

Some experts cite old injustices--the absence of Christians in key government and university posts, for example--that remain unaddressed by the government of President Hosni Mubarak. These commentators say Christian-Muslim relations are at their worst point in years.

"We've never seen a strife that led to so many dead people in one episode in 100 years," said sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. "The scale of violence is clearly on the increase."

But others, including Golta, argue that Christians and Muslims are working together to heal sectarian rifts. Conflicts like Al Kosheh have less to do with religion, they say, and more to do with the clannishness and long-remembered grudges that are trademarks of rural south Egypt.

What's clear is that the Al Kosheh clash has marred Egypt's carefully cultivated millennium image--one it has invested heavily into promoting to a skeptical international community--as a land of refuge and tolerance to which the Holy Family fled from Palestine almost 2,000 years ago. It also casts an embarrassing shadow over the pontiff's upcoming visit.

Significantly, the Vatican has remained silent about the incident, as it has about other sectarian clashes in Egypt in recent years. That includes the reported arrest and torture of hundreds of Christians in Al Kosheh less than two years ago--an incident that many local analysts believe was a case of police brutality routinely practiced on Egyptians of all religions.

"Al Kosheh, as you know very well, was not a religious incident," Archbishop Paul Giglio, the Vatican's papal nuncio, or ambassador, in Egypt, said firmly, referring to the latest turmoil. "It was a disagreement between two people who happened to be of different religions, which blew up and got out of hand. Now the Egyptian government has reestablished calm and tranquillity."

Tensions in Egypt surface periodically not only between Christians and Muslims, but also between the different Christian groups.

The overwhelming majority of Egyptian Christians are Copts, who make up nearly 10 percent of the nation's total population, and whose church dates back to the first century.

Copts easily dwarf other denominations--notably Greek Orthodox, Catholics and Evangelical Protestants.

Indeed, the very size of these communities are in dispute. Catholics, who date their origins in Egypt to foreign missionary efforts that began in in the 17th century, say they number about 300,000. Protestants place their figure at about 750,000.

Religious scholars believe the true populations are far less.

The matter is further muddied by occasional charges leveled by each church that the others are stealing away followers.

But these distinctions go unnoticed by some 56 million Egyptian Muslims. Many have only a sketchy idea of Christianity--and even less about the identity of the Vatican's Polish pope.

"I've heard his name before, but I didn't know who he was exactly," said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, 46, reacting to news of the papal visit as he leaned against a battered car in Cairo. "I haven't heard about his visit, but of course we welcome him in Egypt."

"He's like Pope Shenouda, right?" asked Abdel Rahman's nephew Romda, referring to the head of Egypt's Coptic church. "Only he's the pope for the world."

The few Muslims who knew of the pope's visit quickly linked it to the Al Kosheh violence. They were also quick to denounce allegations of religious discrimination.

"I think the pope is coming to Egypt to check things out himself, and to report the truth to the whole world that there is no difference between Muslims and Christians," said shopkeeper Mohammed Gamal el Din, 50.

Antoine Maadi, 70, who emerged from Mass once recent evening at St. Joseph's Church, agreed. "The pope is welcome in Egypt," said Maadi, a Copt, who has attended services at the French Catholic church for years. "I hope he speaks a message of peace in Egypt, and that he sees that we have no problems here."

But it is difficult to say how truthful these sentiments are. Religion touches a raw and defiant nerve here, and many Egyptians are reluctant to air their views in public.

Bishop Golta, who grew up 40 miles north of Al Kosheh, admits relations between the two faiths are still tense. But he insists they are improving.

Golta's own village, sandwiched between the desert and the Nile River, was once rigidly divided along religious lines in just about every way. But today, he says, a mix of education and sheer population pressure have pushed Christians and Muslims together.

The bishop argues he is a case in point. A former university professor of Arabic and Islamic studies, he spent nearly two decades teaching about a religon that is not his own.

Moreover, he says, he is not alone. "There are also brave Muslims who fight for Copts," Golta said. "That's very new. Relations are a hundred times better than when I was a child."

Abou Elela Madi, a former member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, also believes that Muslims are becoming more tolerant of Christians. Now Madi heads a fledgling group in Egypt to establish a "dialogue" between the two religions.

"There are some problems here, but I think outside groups--especially in the U.S.A.--are exaggerating things," he said. "The effect is very bad on our society."

But a number of analysts believe efforts like those of Madi and Golta remain rare.

"Relations between the Copts and the Muslims have never been in harmony for any length of time," said Milad Hanna, a Coptic intellectual who has written a number of books on interfaith dialogue. "Intolerance has grown in certain areas of Egypt, and tolerance has increased in other places. But overall, I'm afraid its getting worse as time goes by."

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