CAIRO — An alleged romance between an Egyptian Muslim college student and a Coptic Christian man heightened sectarian tension on Friday in a small rural Egyptian town where police fired tear gas to disperse stone-throwing Muslims who surrounded a Coptic church in anger over the inter-faith relationship, a security official and priest said.
The Muslim protesters accuse Saint Girgis Church of helping 21-year-old Rana el-Shazli, who is believed to have converted to Christianity, flee to Turkey with a Coptic Christian man.
Stories of conversions to Christianity or Islam, inter-faith romances and the illegal building and expanding of churches have caused a series of deadly sectarian incidents in recent years. Since Islamists rose to power after Egypt's 2011 uprising that forced out longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Christians have grown more fearful of intimidation and violence from fellow Egyptians, especially ultraconservative Salafis.
The alleged romance has been fueling sectarian tension for nearly two months in Wasta, a rural town in Beni Suef province, about 95 kilometers (60 miles) south of Cairo.
Muslims have attacked churches there and forced Christians to close their shops for nearly eight days last month and members of the Christian man's family have been arrested, including his mother and father, after a prosecutor accused them of collaborating in hiding the woman. The woman's family issued an ultimatum for the church to bring her back early this month, but when it didn't, violence erupted anew.
On Friday, ultraconservative Salafis distributed flyers accusing the church of "proselytizing Christianity," according to a copy of the flyer posted on a social networking site. It called on residents to rally inside a mosque located meters (yards) from the church to "rescue a Muslim soul and bring her back from the deviant path."
Father Bishoy Youssef of the church said he heard loudspeakers from the adjacent mosque calling on worshippers to join a march to the church for the sake of the girl. He said churches in Wasta had been forewarned about "threats to attack the churches" and scheduled early morning masses that would be finished before Friday prayers at the mosque.
"God protect us," he said. "We have nothing to do with this whole story,"
Clashes erupted when protesters hurled stones at security forces that had cordoned off streets leading to the church. Police fired tear gas, according to a security official, who added that police arrested five people, including the girl's uncle. According to the security official at the scene, two people were injured by gunshots and others suffered breathing problems from the tear gas.
Last month, another priest from the same church told Coptic Christian Karama TV network that protesters set his car on fire.
Like previous incidents, sessions to foster reconciliation were held with elders from the town, but extremists seemed intent on escalating the tension, Youssef said.
Abu Islam, a well-known extremist cleric who was tried in an Egyptian court for insulting Christianity, appeared last month on his television program, which is broadcast on The Nation TV, calling on Muslims to take action against any church network that seeks to convert Muslim women to Christianity.
"This girl is not coming back," he said. "The Christians mess with our honor and faith."
Also on Friday, a Christian girl disappeared in the southern ancient city of Luxor. A security official said the family of 20-year-old Rania Manqaryous filed a complaint with police accusing a Muslim man, who was a neighbor, of abducting their daughter.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
In the past, similar incidents have triggered deadly sectarian violence.
In 2010, the ultraconservative Muslim Salafis claimed that Camilla Shehata, a Coptic Christian wife of a priest, had converted to Islam, but was abducted by the church to force her to return to Christianity. Iraq's branch of al-Qaida used the incident as justification for an attack on a Baghdad church that killed 68 people, and threatened to conduct similar attacks in Egypt until the church released her. On Dec. 31, 2011, a suicide bomber killed at least 21 Christians at a church in the port city of Alexandria — an attack linked to the Shehata case.
In May 2011, at least 12 people were killed and a Cairo church was burned in clashes after a Christian woman had an affair with a Muslim man. When she disappeared, the man alleged that Christian clergy had snatched her and were holding her prisoner in a local church because she had converted to Islam.
Separately, dozens of mostly masked protesters hurled stones and firebombs in clashes with riot police at Egypt's presidential palace in a Cairo suburb. Protests have become a weekly occurrence in Egypt with unrest continuing since the 2011 uprising.