Egypt’s military rulers vowed on Sunday to crack down on religious violence after 12 people died in clashes in a Cairo suburb sparked by unconfirmed suspicions that Christians had abducted a woman who converted to Islam.
The inter-faith conflict on Saturday was Egypt’s worst since 13 people died in violence on March 9 that followed a church burning and threw down a new challenge for generals ruling the country since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf cancelled a tour of Gulf Arab states to chair a cabinet meeting where the government decided to deploy more security near religious sites and toughen laws criminalising attacks on places of worship, Reuters reports.
Tension was high and the army cordoned off streets near the Saint Mina church, where about 500 conservative Salafist Muslims massed on Saturday to call on Christians to hand over the woman.
The Salafists were joined by other Muslims who demanded access to the church to see if the woman was inside. Tensions flared, gunfire broke out and the two sides exchanged firebombs and stones, witnesses said.
Soldiers and police fired shots in the air and used teargas to separate the two sides but stone-throwing in streets near the church went on through the night.
A power cut plunged the neighbourhood into darkness, making it harder for the security forces to quell the violence.
Another church nearby, Saint Mary’s, was set on fire and badly damaged. One witness said the fire at Saint Mary’s was started by thugs and that the Salafists had tried to stop them.
Confused accounts of who stoked the violence and began the shooting led to heated arguments in the working class neighbourhood’s narrow streets on Sunday.
“God knows if the story of this convert girl is true or rumours but, regardless, she does not add to Islam or reduce Christianity,” said Dina Mohamed, a housewife living near Saint Mary’s. “Why are we focused on such matters when we are in a country that can barely stand on its feet?”
As bulldozers cleared away the debris at Saint Mary’s on Sunday, an argument broke out between a group of Muslims and Christians in front of the church, attracting a bigger crowd. Security forces fired shots in the air and the crowd dispersed.
“My son attends mass at this church. How can we ever feel safe?” said Nashaat Boshra, who stood crying in front of Saint Mary’s. “This is religious strife facilitated by the army and police. Let’s just face the truth.”
Egypt’s highest religious authority, Al-Azhar, held an emergency meeting to discuss the clashes. The governor of Giza province, where the church lies, said relatives of the dead and injured would receive compensation.
Injured Muslims and Christians being treated in hospital showed reporters small holes that looked like shotgun wounds. State media said 12 died and 232 were wounded. Medical sources said 65 of the injured were shot.
Egypt’s army said on Sunday that 190 people would be tried in military courts over Saturday’s violence.
“I think the army is in a state of confusion,” said Gamal Eid, a prominent author and human rights activist. “It is afraid to take serious action against extremists so as not to be accused of suppressing these movements.”
Christian lawyer Peter el-Naggar blamed the clashes on Salafists seeking the support of more moderate Muslims.
“They want to gain the sympathy of the Egyptian Muslims and they think that by doing what they are doing, they would reach this goal and gain political ground,” Naggar said.
Sectarian strife often flares in Egypt over conversions, family disputes and the construction of churches. Muslims and Christians made demonstrations of unity during the protests that overthrew Mubarak, but interfaith tensions have grown.
Some Christians said the security forces had been too slow to disperse the crowd in front of Saint Mina and looked on as tension got out of hand. Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million population.
Secular Egyptians have voiced unease at what they see as a lax approach to violence by Salafists since Mubarak’s overthrow, saying an emphasis by the government on reconciliation not punishment sends a signal that such violence is acceptable.
Hundreds gathered in Alexandria to call for religious unity and punishment for those who took part in Saturday’s violence.
“They must strike with an iron fist against anyone who has killed an Egyptian, regardless of their religion or political orientation,” said Christian college student Mina Gergis, 22.