Egyptian police on Friday arrested three men suspected of carrying out the drive-by shooting at a church that killed six people.
The suspects were found hiding in a farm field after police discovered the car used in the attack nearby, said a security official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, according to The Associated Press.
All three suspects have criminal records.
On Wednesday, when Coptic and Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas Eve, several cars carrying gunmen opened fire on Christians exiting a church in the Southern Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi.
Six Christians were killed. Another nine were injured.
Local sources say the gunmen wanted to kill Bishop Kirollos of the Nag Hammadi Diocese, who had publicly defended Coptic Christians after a Muslim riot in November. Kirollos had received a death threat prior to Wednesday’s shooting.
“I was the one intended to be assassinated by this plot, and when it failed the criminals turned round and started shooting and finishing off the young ones,” Kirollos told the Middle East Christian Association in an aired interview Thursday.
According to an eyewitness of the drive-by shooting, most of those killed were young men in their 20s. Among those reportedly killed was a young man and his fiancé and a 14-year-old boy, an eyewitness told MECA.
The November riot, which reportedly sparked Wednesday’s violence, was caused by the allegation that a Christian young man had raped a young Muslim girl. Coptic Christians, however, asserted that the story was fabricated in order for Muslims to justify their attack.
The riot reportedly left 65 shops destroyed and caused over $1 million in damage. In the town of Farshoot alone, about 80 percent of Coptic businesses were destroyed.
In November, Bishop Kirollos publicly denounced how security forces handled the riot. And again this week he criticized security forces of negligence, saying that they were not present until after the fatal incident.
Moreover, some Coptic Christians accused state security of not trying to catch the assailants after the attacks but instead interrogating Copts about what occurred.
Unlike prior incidents, Christians have responded to the latest attack with outrage and violence. Thousands of Christians attended the funeral of the six killed Christians on Thursday and then afterwards took to the streets of Nag Hammadi to protest the lack of protection from Muslim violence.
Christian protesters reportedly threw stones at police cars, stores and ambulances. Security forces responded by firing tear gas at Christian demonstrators. The protesters also reportedly chanted, “With our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice ourselves for the cross.”
In response to the violence, SAT-7, the largest Christian satellite network in the Middle East, has called for prayers for the families of the victims.
“At SAT-7 we want to help the larger community to understand the beliefs of their Christian neighbors, encouraging them to live together in peace and mutual respect,” said David Harder, SAT-‘s communications manager.
“We urge Christians around the world to join with us in praying that God will touch the suffering and will somehow turn these incidents around, so that what is meant for evil will instead be used for good, eventually bringing positive changes to affected communities so that such attack will become a thing of the past.”
Coptic Christians account for about ten percent of Egypt’s population. The rest of the country’s population is Muslim.