Church burning deepens tumult of Egypt transition

By Sarah El Deeb

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, May 8 2011 12:40 p.m. MDT

Some hundreds of Christians and Muslims hurl stones at each other during clashes near the Corniche in Cairo, Egypt Sunday, May 8, 2011. The clashes on Sunday come hours after ultraconservative Muslim mobs set fire overnight to a church and a Christian-owned apartment building in a frenzy of violence that killed 12 people and injured more than 200. (AP Photo)

The Associated Press

CAIRO — Relations between Egypt's Muslims and Christians degenerated to a new low Sunday after riots overnight left 12 people dead and a church burned, adding to the disorder of the country's post-revolution transition to democracy.

The attack on the church was the latest sign of assertiveness by an extreme, ultraconservative movement of Muslims known as Salafis, whose increasing hostility toward Egypt's Coptic Christians over the past few months has met with little interference from the country's military rulers.

Salafis have been blamed for other recent attacks on Christians and others they don't approve of. In one attack, a Christian man had an ear cut off for renting an apartment to a Muslim woman suspected of involvement in prostitution.

The latest violence, which erupted in fresh clashes Sunday between Muslims and Christians who pelted each other with stones in another part of Cairo, also pointed to the weakness of the armed forces council that has taken temporary control of the country after Hosni Mubarak's Feb. 11 ouster from the presidency.

After the overnight clashes in the slum of Imbaba, residents turned their anger toward the military. Some said they and the police did almost nothing to intervene in the five-hour frenzy of violence.

The bloodshed began Saturday around sundown when word spread around the neighborhood that a Christian woman who married a Muslim had been abducted and was being kept in the Virgin Mary Church against her will.

The report, which was never confirmed by local religious figures, sent a large mob of Muslims toward the church. Christians created a human barricade around the building and clashes erupted. Gunfire sounded across the neighborhood, and witnesses said people on rooftops nearby were firing into the crowd.

The two sides accused each other's camp of firing first.

Crowds of hundreds of Muslims from the neighborhood lobbed firebombs at homes, shops and the church. Residents say Christians were hiding inside. Muslims chanted: "With our blood and soul, we defend you, Islam."

Rimon Girgis, a 24-year-old with a tattoo of a Coptic saint on his arm, was among the Christians who formed a human shield around the church.

"They were around 40 bearded men chanting slogans like "There is no God but Allah." After rallying Muslim residents, they opened fire," he said. "We Copts have to respond so we hurled stones and pieces of broken marble."

Some of the wounded were carried to the nearby St. Menas Church, where floors were still stained with blood hours later.

"Every five minutes, an injured person was rushed into the church," said a Father Arshedis. "We couldn't reach ambulances by phone. We called and no one answered. We tried to treat the injured. We used the girls' hair clips to extract the bullets."

"The army is responsible because they take no action," he said.

Later the same night, the Muslim crowd moved to a Christian-owned apartment building nearby and set it on fire.

Some soldiers and police did fire tear gas, but failed to clear the streets for hours.

By daybreak, the military had deployed armored vehicles and dozens of troop carriers to cordon off a main street leading to the area. They halted traffic and turned away pedestrians. Men, women and children watching from balconies took photos with mobile phones and cheered the troops.

Across the Nile river, in downtown Cairo, more clashes broke out on Sunday afternoon. Muslim youths attacked Coptic Christian protesters, said Christian activist Bishoy Tamri.

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