SEVERAL hundred Christians pelted police with rocks outside a Cairo hospital last night in fresh clashes the day after 24 people died in riots that grew out of a Coptic protest against the burning of churches.
After the worst sectarian violence since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf warned in a televised address that the riots that left over 200 wounded were another setback on the country’s already fraught transition to civilian rule.
“These events have taken us back several steps,” Mr Sharaf said. “Instead of moving forward to build a modern state on democratic principles, we are back to seeking stability and searching for hidden hands – domestic and foreign – that meddle with the country’s security and safety.”
Last night’s clashes broke out outside the Coptic Hospital – for the second day running – where many of the Christian victims were taken the night before. There were no word on casualties from last night’s clashes.
The rampage on Sunday erupted during a demonstration in the Maspero district on the Nile.
State TV reported that three soldiers had been shot dead and dozens of their comrades wounded as angry Copts wielding batons protested over the church arson attacks last month. “They fired at my colleague. He was standing next to me. Christians, sons of dogs,” one wounded soldier said.
Later on Sunday, hundreds of Muslims and Coptic Christians exchanged blows and threw stones at the Coptic Hospital.
Several cars were set on fire in the wide Ramses Street next to the hospital, and Coptic protesters were tapping the cars to make petrol bombs.
“God is with us, Christ is with us. They want that it (the state) be Islamic, but we will not leave,” said one of the demonstrators. The Muslim protesters, for their part, chanted: “Islamic, Islamic”.
Social networking sites said the earlier clashes were caused by provocation by thugs at the scene, while state television was accused of fanning anti-Coptic sentiment.
In the past weeks, riots have broken out at two churches in southern Egypt, prompted by Muslim crowds angry over church construction. Amid scenes of mayhem on Sunday at the hospital filled with grieving relatives, a priest named Daud told reporters that at least five of those killed were mowed down by a speeding army vehicle.
“Here is the brain” of one of them, he said, pointing to white matter in a plastic bag next to the body and disfigured face of a dead man. “Wael, wake up my dear Wael. Speak to me,” sobbed his sister in despair.
The attacks threatened to push Egypt’s precarious religious tensions to the brink, prompting the caretaker cabinet to pledge it would reopen closed churches and ease building restrictions.
Copts make up roughly 10 per cent of the country’s 80 million people and they complain of state-sanctioned discrimination, including a law that requires presidential permission for church construction.
Additional reporting: AFP