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Church burning deepens tumult of Egypt transition

By Sarah El Deeb

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, May 8 2011 2:30 p.m. MDT

Crowds rampage through the streets of Cairo, in renewed sectarian violence, as various groups of Christians and Muslims throw rocks at each other during clashes near the city centre in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, May 8, 2011. The clashes on Sunday came 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(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 what many see as reluctance of the armed forces council to act. The council took temporary control of the country after President Hosni Mubarak was deposed on Feb. 11.

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.

Analysts warned of signs of Coptic violence, especially with reports that some Christians have opened fire at Muslims.

"The Coptic volcano is exploding," Coptic expert Youssef Sedhom said. "How would Copts respond if they find their back to the wall facing guns? They would have no option but self defense," adding, "don't blame Copts for what they do."

Six Muslims were among the dead, according to Egypt's state-run news agency.

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.

Islamic extremists declared the crowded district a state within a state in 1990s, calling it "the Islamic Republic of Imbaba," one of the country's hottest spots of Islamic militancy.

The report of the kidnapping, 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 were firing into the crowd.

The two sides accused each other 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 had 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 took no action," he said.

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