Egypt Muslim-Christian clashes: 190 face military trial

The al-Azraa church went up in flames during the clashes
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More than 190 people detained after fatal clashes between Muslims and Christians in Cairo are to face military trials, Egypt’s army says.

The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces called the move a “deterrent” against further violence.

Earlier the prime minister postponed a visit to the Gulf in order to hold an emergency cabinet meeting.

At least 10 people have died and 186 were wounded during the overnight clashes in Cairo’s Imbaba district.

It started after several hundred conservative Salafist Muslims gathered outside the Coptic Saint Mena Church.

They were reportedly protesting over allegations that a Christian woman was being held there against her will because she had married a Muslim man and wanted to convert to Islam.

Rival groups threw firebombs and stones, and gunfire was heard.

The church and one other, as well as some nearby homes, were set alight, and it took some hours for the emergency services and the military to bring the situation under control.

‘Severe dangers’
“The Supreme Military Council decided to send all those who were arrested in yesterday’s events, that is 190 people, to the Supreme Military Court,” the Egyptian army announced on its Facebook Page.

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Jonathan Head
BBC News
For months conservative Muslim groups in Egypt have been protesting about the case of Camelia Shehata, the wife of the Coptic priest, who vanished last year. They say she converted to Islam and was being held against her will. But she has now appeared on a TV channel saying she is still a willing Christian.

Last night’s attack by a Salafi crowd on the Saint Mena church in Imbaba was about a different woman, who they also allege is being forcibly prevented from converting to Islam.

Prime Minister Essam Shara is sufficiently alarmed by the scale of the violence to cancel his trip to the Gulf.

Some Egyptians believe the military deliberately allows the fighting to continue because it is unwilling to confront the Salafis, who have become more assertive since the fall of President Mubarak. Some believe it is elements of the old regime stirring up trouble. Certainly there are ambitious figures in both communities whose leadership aspirations might benefit from increased strife

Heightened political competition in the run-up to the first post-Mubarak election in September could well spark off more communal clashes. The interim military government’s track record in dealing with them, is not encouraging.

It added that it should act as a “deterrent to all those who think of toying with the potential of this nation”.

The statement also said that a committee would be set up to assess the damage caused by the clashes and “restore all property and places of worship to how they were”.

The army warned of “severe dangers facing Egypt during this phase”.

Earlier, state media reported that the Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf, had postponed a visit to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates and had called an emergency meeting of the cabinet to discuss the events.

This is not the first outbreak of communal violence since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February following weeks of popular protests.

In March, 13 people died in similar clashes in another neighbourhood. Last month, demonstrators in the southern city of Qena cut all transport links with Cairo for a week in protest over the appointment of a Christian governor.

The clashes – coming as the military government leads a faltering transition to democracy – are a worrying development for Egypt, the BBC’s Jonathan Head in Cairo says.

Salafist groups – who have made similar claims about women being held against their will before – have become more assertive in the post-Mubarak era, he adds.

Coptic Christians account for about 10% of Egypt’s population, and have long complained of state discrimination against them.

Now they are expressing fears for their safety if hardline Muslims do well in the election scheduled for September, our correspondent reports.

Rising toll
Witnesses to Saturday’s violence said it began with shouting between protesters, church guards and people living near the church.

A parish priest, Father Hermina, told the AFP news agency that the group had attempted to storm the church earlier in the day.

But one Muslim protester insisted that they had first been fired upon by the Copts.

One person in the area, a blogger called Mahmoud, told the BBC that people who saw the violence break out thought that the perpetrators looked like “regular thugs” rather than Salafists.

He had witnessed the burning of a second church in the same district, al-Azraa, and said that many local people were very upset at the burning of the churches and had spent the night helping the firefighters put the flames out.

Both the death and wounded toll kept rising on Sunday morning, with state media putting the latest number of dead at 10 and injured at 186.

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