x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Christians and Muslims rally together in Egypt after sectarian deaths

Egyptian army blamed for not intervening sooner in clashes over destruction of church between Copts and Muslims that saw 10 killed.

An Egyptian Christian holds a cross during a protest in front of the Information centre building in Cairo over the burning of a church in the Cairo suburbs.
An Egyptian Christian holds a cross during a protest in front of the Information centre building in Cairo over the burning of a church in the Cairo suburbs.

CAIRO // Christians and Muslims rallied together in the Egyptian capital yesterday to protest against the country's military rulers and stress national unity a day after sectarian clashes claimed the lives of at least 10 people and wounded scores more.

Angry protesters gathered outside the state television building questioned why the army did not intervene more quickly in the worst inter-religious violence seen in Egypt since former president Hosni Mubarak resigned on February 11.

The clashes late Tuesday were the latest in a series of incidents that have re-awoken historic sectarian tensions and shaken the unity of a youth-led protest movement that put aside religious differences to oppose Mr Mubarak.

The crowd of more than 1,000 demonstrators chanted: "They said the army will protect us but we discovered they are hurting us.They tell us our country is safe and secure, alas that was in the past." It included Muslims but appeared to be made up predominantly of Christians, many of whom carried large wooden crucifixes.

The fighting erupted at the southern edge of Cairo when a group of several thousand Christians blocked a major highway and faced off against thousands of Muslims. Soldiers reportedly managed to break up the fighting by firing guns in the air after several hours of running street battles.

At least 10 people, both Christian and Muslim, were killed, the Ministry of Health reported, according to MENA, the state news agency.

The Christians were protesting against the destruction of a church by Muslims in Sol, a village 90km south of the capital, on Friday in which the local parish priest was nearly killed. The destruction of the church itself came after clashes reportedly sparked by a love affair between a Christian and Muslim in the same governate.

Military officers met residents in Sol on Tuesday and have promised on state television to rebuild the church on the same spot as soon as possible. Protesters yesterday, however, said they had lost faith in the military to protect the interests of the country's Christian minority, which makes up about 10 per cent of the population.

Emad Nagi, a Christian who traveled more than 200km to the Cairo protest yesterday from a village in upper Egypt, compared the head of the ruling Supreme Military Council, Mohammed Sayid Tantawi, to Habib el Adly, the former interior minister who is now under criminal investigation for a number of charges, including stoking sectarian tensions.

"Tantawi is the head of all corruption, he does wrong to the Christians just as Habib al Adly did," said Mr Nagi, who works as a diver in the resort town of Hurghada.

Mr Nagi repeated a theory heard in more than a dozen interviews with protesters that government officials had allowed the clashes to take place to disrupt the unity of Egypt's youth-led protest movement.

Protestsin Cairo's Tahrir Square leading up to Mr Mubarak's resignation featured prominent scenes of religious unity, with Christians and Muslims each protecting the other side during prayers.

Sayid Hashmi, a professor at Cairo University who is a Muslim, attended the protest yesterday to preserve that unity, he said.

"I am a Muslim, but I must support them — this [unity] is the main purpose, the real demand of the revolution."

The scenes of unity yesterday occurred less than a kilometre from Tahrir Square, where a group of several hundred unidentified youth charged a group of protesters who have remained camped in the middle of the square.

The two groups threw rocks at one another in the street in front of the Egyptian museum, recalling scenes early last month when anti-government protesters clashed with pro-government forces. At least three people were injured, but the encamped protesters retained in control of the square.

cstanton@thenational.ae