CAIRO // Muslims set ablaze 10 homes belonging to Coptic Christians in a small town south of Cairo yesterday, after rumours circulated that a Christian woman who lived there was dating a Muslim man, security officials reported.
The arson in Al Nawahiz, about 465 kilometres south of Cairo, marks the second time in less than a year that Muslims in the Upper Egypt region have acted in such a violent manner against Christians and comes amid rising sectarian tensions following tit-for-tat statements from Christian and Muslim leaders.
Emergency workers said there were no injuries in the fires, according to the Associated Press.
Such violence between religious communities is rare in Egypt, where Coptic Christians make up about 10 per cent of the population of 80 million.
The most recent religious-related violence in the region occurred in Iraq, where Muslim extremists laid siege to a church in October in an attack that left 58 people dead.
The Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qa'eda-linked group, claimed responsibility and, in a statement following the attack, urged Muslims throughout the world to target Christians and Christian property "wherever they can reach them".
The group's appeal was roundly rejected by Egyptian Islamic leaders, including the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed Islamist political party, and Al-Azhar University, the highest institute of Sunni Islamic education.
It is unlikely that yesterday's violence was a response to that appeal, said Emad Gad, a Coptic Christian from Upper Egypt and a political analyst at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
"We know, very well, the style of al Qa'eda's work. They just kill and burn and explode," said Mr Gad. "But, concerning these attacks, these attacks would be the style of the Muslim Brothers or Islamic groups, not al Qa'eda."
Violence in rural Upper Egypt tends to stem more from family feuds and local political disputes than sectarian tension.
Nevertheless, three Muslim gunmen were believed to have been involved in a shooting in January outside a Christmas mass in the Upper Egyptian town of Naga Hammadi. That attack ended in the deaths of six Christian worshippers and a Muslim security guard.
Human rights groups say attacks on Copts are on the rise, underscoring the government's failure to address sectarian strains in a society where religious radicalism is gaining ground. But the government insists Christians enjoy the same rights as Muslims.