Sunday's violent clashes in Cairo have seen at least 26 killed, and thousands of Coptic Christians have joined a funeral procession Monday to mourn their dead.
Mourners are blaming the Egyptian army for the high death toll, arguing that a Christian march on Sunday was absolutely peaceful until the military started a crackdown. The ensuing clashes reportedly saw Islamic extremists join the attacks against the Christians, and even saw a military vehicle driven directly into crowds of protesters.
Christians had gathered on Sunday to protest against the burning of a Coptic church in Southern Aswan last week. However, violence broke out when military personnel commenced a crackdown on the protest.
That violence quickly escalated significantly and minor fighting has reportedly continued during the funeral processions Monday.
U.S. President Barack Obama has released a statement urging peace and compromise “so that Egyptians can move forward together to forge a strong and united Egypt.”
Reports of casualties have been coming through since Sunday night after Egypt’s military and police sought to quell the peaceful protests by members of the country’s largest Christian denomination, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.
It remains unclear if the victims were mostly Christian but there were reports of suspected Islamist groups throwing stones at and beating protesting Copts who were demanding a halt to the growing attacks on churches.
The death toll was expected to rise, as local media were still struggling to gather information amid the ongoing unrest.
At 12:18 a.m., local time, witnesses told Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm that groups of “thugs” were attacking businesses owned by Christians near Abdel Moneim Riyadh Square, which was the epicenter of violence.
The daily said a group of men chanting, “Islamic, Islamic!” – “a common slogan of Islamist groups” – was spotted at Cairo’s Qasr al-Ainy Street less than an hour before the post-midnight attack. Another group, chanting “Allahu Akbar,” was seen standing next to a group of Central Security Forces officers elsewhere, it added.
The original protests by the Christians were speaking out against the recent attack against the Marinab Church in Aswan, which was attacked on Sept. 30 allegedly by Muslim citizens who claimed the church did not have the license for the construction of a dome.
The crackdown on protesters began minutes after Prime Minister Essam Sharaf asked military and security officials to “contain the situation.” But Sharaf blamed the violence on the “enemies of the January 25 Revolution.”
“This is a time for the entire body of Christ to pray for the church in Egypt and the entire region. It is also a time for all peoples of every religion to come together and work for true freedom, democracy and peace,” said Dr. Carl Moeller, President/CEO of Open Doors USA.
Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million. Over recent months Christians in the country have been anxious about their future in the country, as Islamic groups which remained underground or inactive during the rule of the now ousted president Hosni Mubarak, became more socially and politically active following the fall of the regime in a “January 25 Revolution.”
Christians have complained that the interim military administration is doing little to protect their community as violence and attacks have continued to escalate over recent weeks.