Egypt’s Pope Shenouda, head of the Orthodox Coptic church, called on Christians to abandon a demonstration against attacks on their community after a clash overnight left 78 wounded.
Christians have been gathered for more than a week in front of the state television building to call for equal rights in Muslim-majority Egypt and to demand that all perpetrators of crimes against their community be held to account.
The protest began last week after fighting in a Cairo suburb left at least 12 people dead and at least one church burned. Witnesses said Salafists — followers of a strict interpretation of Islam — had surrounded a church and demanded the release of a woman who had allegedly converted to Islam, Reuters reports.
Unidentified gunmen fired shots at the protesters in the early hours of Sunday, and police responded by firing teargas at the gunmen and blanks into the air. Some of the Christians threw rocks at the attackers.
“My protesting sons and daughters, the matter has gone beyond expression of opinions and there are those who have come between you and who have ways that are not your own,” a statement from Pope Shenouda said.
“There are now fights and exchange of fire which are hurting Egypt’s reputation and yours too and therefore this protest must be immediately broken up,” the statement said.
POPE “TOO FORGIVING”
Some 2,000 protesters remained in place and vowed to continue the demonstration.
“We will not leave until our demands are met. The pope is a man of religion but he is too forgiving and his people want their rights. We see that our rights are always being overlooked,” Beshara Marzouk said.
Nine people were still in hospital as a result of injuries sustained in the clashes, but all cases were stable, the state news agency MENA said.
The clashes have posed a challenge for Egypt’s new military rulers, under pressure to impose security and revive the ailing economy while seeking to avoid the tough security tactics against Islamists used by ex-President Hosni Mubarak.
The interim ruling military council vowed on Friday to use all means to crack down on what they described “deviant groups” threatening stability and security.
Interfaith relationships have in the past caused tension in Egypt, where Christians make up about 10 percent of its 80 million people.
A New Year’s Day bombing outside a church in Alexandria killed up to 23 people and sparked angry protests by Christians demanding more protection from Muslim militants.
Christians also complain of unfair treatment, including rules they say make it easier to build a mosque than a church.