Curfew was in force in Cairo Monday morning after deadly clashes left at least 23 dead and over 200 injured following protests by Coptic Christians against growing persecution.
The casualties were reported Sunday night after Egypt’s military and police sought to quell peaceful protests by members of the country’s largest Christian denomination, Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, against last week’s attack on a church in Aswan province.
It remained 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.
Violence carried on at least until early Monday. 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” – were 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 protests called for resolving the crisis over 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.
Gunfire by troops began as the thousands of protesters reached the state television building, known as Maspiro, marching from the Christian-majority district of Shubra, Sunday evening. “Protesters showed Al-Masry Al-Youm bullets from the shooting. One protester showed what he said were bits of skull and brain of his friend who was killed after being run over by an armed vehicle.”
Troops also stormed into the office of a private television channel, Channel 25. Some of the soldiers asked for ID cards of journalists to identify Christians, the daily said. They also assaulted journalists, including a pregnant woman. The channel had to stop the live broadcasting of the violence.
Some other private television stations were raided by men wearing plainclothes who also warned against the live telecast.
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.”
Information Minister Osama Heikal held “external forces” responsible for the clashes.
However, the newly formed left-liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party charged that the military council was seeking to abort the country’s democratic transition by “engineering” violence.
Christians make up about 10 percent of the country’s population of 80 million. They are anxious about their future, as extremist Muslim groups, which remained underground or inactive during the rule of the now ousted president Hosni Mubarak, got socially and politically active after the fall of his regime following the January 25 revolution. Christians complain that the interim military administration is doing little to protect the community.