Massive riots have broken out in Egypt with what started off as Christians protesting over a church attack. At least 23 people have now been killed and over 150 injured on Sunday as Christians in Cairo clashed with military police, resulting in the worst sectarian violence since Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February.
Cars were set on fire and army vehicles were seen driving towards the crowd at full speed. News agencies quoted witnesses as saying that some protesters were killed when a military vehicle drove straight into them.
Christian protesters said their demonstration started off as a march against the burning of a Coptic church last week prompted by Muslim extremists. They claim they planned a peaceful demonstration outside of a television studio but police attacked them in plain clothes.
The violence later spread to Tahrir Square, the focal point of the February protests against Mubarak.
"We were marching peacefully," Talaat Youssef, 23-year old Christian trader, told Reuters. "When we got to the state television building, the army started firing live ammunition."
"The protest was peaceful. We wanted to hold a sit-in, as usual," Essam Khalili, a protester told Associated Press. He also told the news agency what he had seen.
"Thugs attacked us and a military vehicle jumped over a sidewalk and ran over at least 10 people," he said.
"Suddenly, we were attacked by thugs carrying swords and clubs," one protester, Magdi Hanna, told CNN.
Egypt’s prime minister Essam Sharaf called on church authorities to contain the situation. "The only beneficiary of these events and acts of violence are the enemies of the January revolution and the enemies of the Egyptian people, both Muslim and Christian," he said on his Facebook page.
Christians make up 10 percent of Egypt’s population. It has become a regular occurrence that they are attacked by Islamic extremists. A recent sectarian attack in May killed 12 people after rumors spread that Christians were holding a woman who converted to Islam; those rumors proved to be false. The attack had prompted the government to consider new laws that will criminalize sectarian violence.