Christians furious after Egypt arson attacks

Muslim gunmen shot dead six Copts


Residents of a southern Egypt village were furious on Saturday after houses and shops owned by Coptic Christians were burnt as sectarian tensions flared in the wake of a deadly drive-by shooting.

Muslim gunmen shot dead six Copts in the nearby town of Nagaa Hammadi on Wednesday night as worshippers emerged from Christmas Eve mass, one of Egypt's deadliest sectarian attacks in years in which a policeman was also killed.

On Saturday, men in traditional flowing robes and with crosses tattooed on their arms surveyed the damage in Bahgura, where shopfronts that were once blue and green were now charred black after overnight arson attacks.

They charged that Muslim "thugs" who live in the town went on the rampage on Friday night, lobbing fireballs into Christian-owned shops and some houses.

Muslim residents said the action was in retaliation for the shooting death of a member of their community, while Christian villagers said a woman from their community had died in fire attacks on their property.

Security sources denied there had been any deaths.

Past sugarcane fields lining the Nile, riot police and plain-clothed officers guarded the entrances to villages and towns near Nagaa Hammadi in impoverished Qena province, which relies entirely on sugar production.

In Bahgura, a crowd of villagers vented their anger to a plain-clothes policeman, and at least one person lunged forward in an attempt to hit him before being restrained by other residents.

"You don't want the truth to come out, you don't want them to see what's happened," one man shouted as police asked reporters to leave town.

You don't want the truth to come out, you don't want them to see what's happened


Arson attacks

Christian homes and shops were burned by Muslims, the villagers charged.

"They are Muslims and they live in this village," one man said.

"What can we do? They are protected and we are not!" shouted another.

Christians in Bahgura, and in Nagaa Hammadi where the Christmas Eve killings took place, are convinced that the authorities are turning a blind eye to the sectarian violence.

Some even accuse the authorities of actively protecting Muslims they say are behind the simmering tensions.

The interior ministry on Friday announced the capture of three suspects from Wednesday's shooting, including Nagaa Hammadi resident Mohammed al-Kamuni, known locally by his nickname Hamam.

But the ministry announcement merely left Copts demanding more answers.

"We all know Hamam," one Christian resident of Nagaa Hammadi told AFP. "He's a hired thug. We want to know who is really behind the shooting."

The Nagaa Hammadi attack was the deadliest since 20 Copts were killed in sectarian clashes in 2000, also in southern Egypt.

Copts, who account for nearly 10 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million, are the Middle East's largest Christian community but complain of routine harassment and systematic discrimination and marginalisation.

In the aftermath of the Nagaa Hammadi killings, many Copts fear a new outbreak of violence and are unwilling to tone down their anger at what they say is a government attempt to hush up Egypt's sectarian problem.

"The only reason things remain quiet is because of the heavy hand of security. Remove that hand and things will blow up," Malaak, 22, told AFP, declining to give her surname.

Another Christian, who also asked not to be identified, said: "The problem between Muslims and Christians is huge. And the police, security and politicians are all involved."

What can we do? They are protected and we are not