At least 36 people were killed and 272 injured in clashes between Coptic Christians and Egyptian security forces on Sunday near the state television building, known as Maspero, in Cairo, Egypt’s health ministry said.
Egypt’s army rulers, meanwhile, imposed a curfew on Cairo’s Tahrir Square and downtown area, the state media announced. Tahrir Square was the epicenter of the February uprising that overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak.
A correspondent of Al Arabiya, whose office buildings are in the Maspero area, said there was heavy gunfire in the clashes as protesters seized weapons from torched military vehicles. She said she saw bodies outside the building but did not know if they were wounded or dead.
The clashes were prompted by an attack on a Coptic Christian church in Merinab village in Aswan on Sept. 30 by Muslims who said the church did not have the proper license to build a dome.
State television said the church was attacked after Aswan governor Mustafa al-Seyyed was reported as saying Copts had built it without the required planning permission.
“Down with the marshal,” the demonstrators chanted on the march to Maspero, referring to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi who took power in February after Mubarak’s ouster in the face of mass street protests.
“We were marching peacefully,” Talaat Youssef, a 23-year old Christian trader, told Reuters at the scene.
“When we got to the state television building, the army started firing live ammunition,” he said, adding that military vehicles ran over protesters, killing five. His account could not be immediately confirmed.
“The army is supposed to be protecting us,” Youssef said.
Hundreds fought with sticks on a Cairo bridge and protests later spread to Tahrir Square, the focal point of the February uprising, as Muslims joined the rally in a show of solidarity.
Smoke from tear gas swirled over the square as thousands of protesters chanted “The people demand the fall of the field marshal”.
A Reuters witness said the army had moved in to contain the unrest, beating some protesters with batons.
State TV and sources said at least 150 people were injured on Sunday, without saying how many of them were protesters. It had earlier said three the dead were soldiers.
The government has appealed for calm. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said he had contacted security and church authorities to contain the situation.
In a televised speech he called the clashes unjustified violence that raised fears about Egypt's transition to democracy.
“The only beneficiary of these events and acts of violence are the enemies of the January revolution and the enemies of the Egyptian people, both Muslim and Christian,” he said on his Facebook page.
“The absence of a state of law is the cause of what is happening. Freedom of expression is the basis of a democratic society and a state of law,”Political analyst Amr Hashim Rabei told Al Arabiya.
“This has not happened for months. Coptic leaders should ask protesters to exercise calm and follow their case in courts.”
Speaking to Al Arabiya from Tahrir Square, Bashir Abdel-Fattah, of the official daily Al-Ahram, said more numbers of Copts were heading to the area of clashes.
“Copts from different neighborhoods of Cairo are still coming to the area in increasing numbers,” Abdel-Fattah said.
Sectarian clashes are frequent in Egypt where Copts, who make up 10 percent of the 80-million-strong population, have been the target of attacks and have repeatedly accused the authorities of systematic discrimination