Egypt: Tension rises after violence at Coptic funeral

The Independent

Service for Christians killed in sectarian clashes draws 5,000 protesters: Thousands clashed with police during a funeral procession yesterday for the seven people killed in an attack on churchgoers leaving a midnight Mass for Coptic Christians. The protesters pelted cars with stones. Earlier, they smashed ambulances at the hospital in frustration over delays in turning over the bodies for burial. A security official said police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. The riots follow an attack the previous night, in which three gunmen in a car sprayed automatic gunfire into a crowd leaving a church in the town of Nag Hammadi, about 40 miles from the ancient ruins of Luxor. The lead attacker was identified as a Muslim.

Bishop Kirollos of the Nag Hammadi Diocese said six male churchgoers and one security guard were killed. He said he had left St John's church minutes before the attack and headed to his residence. He said he saw five bodies lying on the ground. "I heard the mayhem, lots of machine-gun shots," he said in a telephone interview.

Egypt's Interior Ministry said the attack was suspected retaliation for the November rape of a 12-year-old Muslim girl by a Christian man in the same town. The bishop was concerned about violence on the eve of Coptic Christmas because of previous threats following the rape. He was sent a mobile phone message saying: "It is your turn". "My faithful were also receiving threats in the streets, some shouting, 'We will not let you have festivities,'" he said.

Christians, mostly Coptics, account for about 10 per cent of Egypt's predominantly Muslim population. They generally live in peace with the Muslim majority although clashes and tensions in the south do occur, mostly over land or church construction disputes. In recent years, the clashes have begun seeping into the capital.

Security was tight in the town as police deployed in search for the suspects. The release of bodies may have been delayed because of fear the funerals would turn into a flashpoint for more violence. The funeral procession took place later and was attended by local officials.

Security officials said some 5,000 protesters shouted: "Long live the Cross" and "No to persecution". The protesters also stoned police cars, and scuffled with security. Shops shut their doors in the town to avoid the violence.

As Islamic conservatism gains ground, Christians have increasingly complained about discrimination by the Muslim majority. Coptic Christians are limited in where they can build churches and must obtain government approval before expanding existing facilities. The government insists Christians enjoy the same rights as Muslims.

The head of provincial security, Mahmoud Gohar, told reporters that security agents have identified the lead attacker, an alleged known criminal, and his location has been determined. No arrests have been made yet.

Mr Gohar said security was beefed up in the town and neighbouring villages, and checkpoints were erected in the area as tensions ran high among the town's Christian population.

By Sarah El Deeb in Cairo

January 8, 2010