Gunmen opened fire late Wednesday in a shopping district and outside an eastern Egyptian church, killing at least five Coptic Christians ahead of their Christmas celebrations, local and federal officials reported.
Coptic Christians, who observe Christmas Day on Jan. 7 along with other Orthodox communities, were celebrating Christmas Eve when gunmen traveling in a car opened fire in a shopping district in the southern Egyptian town of Nagaa Hammadi and later in front of the town’s main church as worshipers emerged from midnight mass.
It was not immediately clear if all six deaths were from the drive-by shooting in the shopping district or from outside the church, but the Egypt’s interior ministry informed CNN that one of the dead was a police officer, and the five civilians were all Coptic Christians. At least seven others were reportedly injured.
After the attack in front of the church, the church's bishop told the press that there had been threats in the days leading up to the Christmas Eve service - a reason he decided to end his mass an hour earlier than normal.
"For days, I had expected something to happen on Christmas Eve," he told the Associated Press.
Christians in Egypt, who make up roughly 9 percent of the country's 83 million population, have long complained of harassment and discrimination in the predominantly Muslim country.
Though they make up a sizeable number in Egypt, the Christian community in Egypt, which mostly consists of Coptics, is marginalized in society and reportedly suffers from violent forms of abuse. Egyptian Christians also lack fair representation in the government, leading to further abuse of the minority group.
According to Egypt’s constitution, Islam is the “religion of the state” and the country's “principle source of legislation.”
The main gunman in Wednesday's shooting has been identified as a Muslim man who is wanted by police and linked the incident to the abduction of a 12-year-old Muslim girl in November, according to Agence France Presse.
Officials say they are searching for the main shooter and the other individuals who were traveling with him in the car.
Notably, however, some Coptic Christians say such attacks on them in the past have gone unpunished or have drawn light sentences.
The handling of such cases by local authorities is often criticized.
Furthermore, Coptic Christians have increasingly accused the Egyptian State Security and other security authorities of having a hand in many of the crimes taking place against the Copts in Egypt.
Since the 1970s, when Islamic extremism began to increase in Egypt, there have been sporadic clashes between Muslims and members of the Coptic Christian minority.
What starts off as a small dispute can easily spill over into sectarian violence that pulls in whole communities.
According to the CIA World Fact Book, about 9 percent of Egyptians are Coptic, or Christians that descended from the ancient Egyptians. Ninety percent of Egyptians, meanwhile, are Muslim.