President Al Sissi
President Al Sissi speaks during a Coptic Christmas service with Coptic Pope Tawadros II in a cathedral last year. Image Credit: Supplied

Cairo: Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi has decreed the creation of a high-level agency aimed at tackling sectarian problems after the recent eruption of communal tensions in some areas of the Muslim majority country.

The Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents is led by Al Sissi’s adviser for security and combatting terrorism, and comprises representatives from the military and general intelligence services, the state Administrative Oversight Agency and the National Security Service, official media reported Monday.

The panel is tasked with devising a strategy to stave off sectarian tensions and a mechanism to address such incidents when they occur.

Egypt’s minority Christians make up around 10 per cent of the country’s population of nearly 100 million. For long, they’ve complained about discrimination, attacks by radical Islamists and forced displacement.

Since taking office in 2014, Al Sissi, a Muslim, has been keen on promoting peaceful co-existence between the nation’s Muslims and Christians. The ex-army chief is widely popular among Egyptian Christians.

While there has been a significant drop in incidents of Muslim-Christian tensions over the past four years, strains have occasionally flared up between both sides in Upper Egypt, mainly over unlicenced Coptic places of worship.

“The presidential decree is a great step on the right path,” said Boulis Halim, the spokesman for Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church.

He believes that the creation of the committee will catalyse different state institutions to mobilise efforts against radicalism.

“The committee’s work will contribute to promoting tolerance and spreading societal peace and genuine civic rights,” the cleric added in a press statement.

“This decree will contribute to building a modern Egypt, because extremism devours any growth in society.”

The move has drawn applause from some Muslim lawmakers.

“The task of this committee is very crucial, especially as some people seek to incite sectarian sedition in some provinces,” MP Maysa Attwa said.

She called for addressing the roots of sectarian tensions. “In some areas, the educational level is low and prejudice is strong. Sectarian incidents can break out there for trivial reasons, resulting in deaths,” Attwa added.

Egypt’s Christians have been the target of attacks by militants since 2013 when the army, then led by Al Sissi, deposed Islamist president Mohammad Mursi following enormous protests against his divisive rule.

Dozens of churches were destroyed in revenge by Mursi’s loyalists after his toppling. The government has since overhauled the sites.

In November, seven people were killed in an attack claimed by the Daesh terrorist group, on a bus near the Coptic St Samuel Monastery in the Upper Egyptian province of Minya.