Muslims and Coptic Christians Clash Again in Egypt


Muslims and Coptic Christians clashed with bullets, rocks and Molotov cocktails here for the second time in seven days on Saturday night, sending at least 55 people to the hospital, officials with Egypt’s Interior Ministry said.

The officials said that at least 33 of the wounded were Muslims, 22 were Christians and that 28 were arrested for playing a role in the strife.

Fears of such sectarian violence have kept Cairo on edge since a nightlong battle between mobs of Muslims and Coptic Christians in the working-class neighborhood of Imbaba a week ago left at least a dozen dead and two churches in flames. (Egyptian state news media said Sunday that the death toll had risen to 15.)

On Sunday, hundreds of Copts angry at the failure of the Egyptian police and armed forces to protect their churches more effectively held a sit-in outside the state television building, known as Maspero.

The clashes on Saturday began about 10 p.m., officials of the Interior Ministry said. Witnesses and officials said a small group of Muslims had fired shots at the sit-in. Soon groups of young men from each faith were battling each other for hours with rocks, sticks and Molotov cocktails.

In the aftermath of the bloodshed, Pope Shenouda III, the leader of Egypt’s Coptic Christian church, urged an end to the sit-in on Sunday, Egyptian state news media reported. “To our children who are protesting in front of Maspero, the protest is now no longer about expressing your opinion and has been infiltrated by those who use different means than the ones you use,” the pope said in a statement, according to the Web site of the state newspaper Al Ahram. “Now there is fighting and hitting, and that negatively affects Egypt’s reputation as well as your reputation. Therefore, you have to immediately end the protest.”

The paper’s Web site said that he added: “The patience of the rulers is starting to end, and you will be the losers if you continue in the protest.”

But thousands of Copts ignored their patriarch’s admonition and continued to rally into Sunday night. “With our blood, with our soul, we sacrifice for the cross,” they chanted.

Tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population here, have risen steadily since the sweeping vows of unity during the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak three months ago. Copts say they have felt increasingly embattled since clashes just south of Cairo left a church burning last month.

The battle on the night of May 7 in the neighborhood of Imbaba began with a dispute over a woman. Neighborhood Muslims were convinced that Christians were holding her in a church against her will to talk her out of converting to Islam and leaving her Christian husband for a Muslim man — a recurring theme in sectarian disputes here, where a combination of custom and law make it easier for Muslims than Christians to divorce.

With memories of last month’s church fire still fresh, about 500 Copts rallied to defend their church — some with firearms — even before more than two dozen Muslims had approached it. Casualties were roughly even on both sides.

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