Two churches were set ablaze and at least 12 people killed in clashes between Coptic Christians and Muslims in Cairo over the weekend.
Pitched street battles broke out across the impoverished neighborhood of Imbaba, in the western part of Egypt’s capital, after Salafi Muslims turned out in force to demonstrate outside Saint Menas Church Saturday night.
The hardline Muslims were angry over rumors that a Christian woman was being held against her will inside the church because she wanted to convert to Islam and marry a Muslim man. Christians deny the claims.
The Salafis set the front of the church ablaze while Christians were still inside the building, and threw petrol bombs at homes and shops.
As the violence spiraled, Christians and Muslims threw stones at one another and gunshots could be heard. The nearby Virgin Mary Church was also set ablaze.
Riot police moved in to quell the violence with teargas and by firing warning shots into the air, but some Christians say they did not do enough to bring the situation under control.
Misak Gameel, a priest at Saint Menas Church, was quoted by British newspaper The Independent, as saying: “The gates of hell themselves couldn’t destroy this church. We blame the army and the police. They didn’t deal with the Salafis and thugs as required.”
Christians and Muslims clashed again in central Cairo on Sunday, hurling stones at each other. Thousands of young Christians protested outside the state television building where they demanded the resignation of Egypt’s top military leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
Around 190 people have been arrested so far as Egypt’s military leaders vowed justice. It is under pressure to restore peace quickly in the face of widespread security concerns following the January 25 revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
Egypt’s prime minister, Essam Sharaf, canceled a tour of Gulf Arab states to deal with the situation. In a cabinet meeting, the government moved to increase security around religious sites and toughen laws related to attacks on places of worship.
It also promised financial compensation for relatives of the dead and the injured. Those arrested are to stand trial in the military courts.
The Coptic Cathedral announced three days of mourning on Sunday and led prayers for the dead.