Egypt says train shooting not sectarian

And denies religion as a motive


Egyptian authorities on Wednesday played down a sectarian motive for the murder of a Coptic man by a policeman, a day after Egypt recalled its Vatican envoy after the pope urged Cairo to protect its Christian minority.

Prosecutors were questioning the 23-year-old policeman who boarded a train near the southern town of Samalut and opened fire on passengers, killing a 71-year-old Coptic man and wounding his wife and four other Copts.

The attack by the off-duty policeman sparked a protest outside a hospital in Samalut overnight by hundreds of Copts whom police dispersed using tear gas.

Motives behind the attack

It came less than two weeks after a suicide bomber killed 21 congregants outside an Alexandria church following a New Year's Eve mass.

A security official said the suspect, who was arrested after the shooting, said in questioning that he had felt "irritated and frustrated" because he was short on money. He did not say he specifically targeted Christians.

Ahmed Diaa al-Din, governor of Minya, where Samalut is located, denied that the attacker was religiously motivated.

"It has to do with his personal mental state. It had nothing to do with the religion of his victims," he told AFP. "He boarded the train suddenly and emptied his pistol."

He said that the man tried to shoot two Muslims who wrestled with him but he had run out of ammunition.

But a local priest said the victims had told him the attacker surveyed the passengers and singled out a group of women who were not wearing the Muslim headscarf.

"The victims said he entered the carriage and he started looking at the passengers. He saw four women, sitting next to some male relatives, who were not wearing the hijab," said Father Morcos.

"After he was certain, he raised his gun and yelled "Allahu Akbar," the priest said, referring to an Islamic phrase that means "God is greater."

The attack took place hours after Egypt announced it had recalled its ambassador to the Vatican over remarks by Pope Benedict XVI it described as "interference."

Egyptain internal affairs

The pontiff has expressed repeatedly his solidarity with the Copts and called on world leaders to protect them in the aftermath of a New Year's Day church bombing that killed 21 people as worshippers emerged from midnight mass in Alexandria.

"Egypt will not allow any non-Egyptian faction to interfere in its internal affairs under any pretext," the foreign ministry said in a statement. "The Coptic question is specifically an internal Egyptian affair."

The Vatican's foreign minister said the Holy See wished to avoid escalation of religious tensions in Egypt.

The Vatican "completely shares the (Egyptian) government's concern with 'avoiding an escalation of clashes and religious tensions,' and appreciates its efforts in this direction," a spokesman quoted Dominique Mamberti as saying during a meeting with the recalled ambassador.

Copts, who make up about 10 percent of the country's 80-million population, have been targets of sectarian attacks and complain of religious discrimination.