Calls for nationwide ‘unity’ protests in Egypt amid fears of sectarian conflict


Egyptian pro-democracy activists on Wednesday called for nationwide “unity” protests amid fears of widespread sectarian unrest following the latest clashes between Muslims and Christians.

Activists are calling on the country's Christians and Muslims to come out on Friday to denounce sectarian divisions, after deadly clashes in Cairo on Saturday that left 12 people dead.

Calls for protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square-- the symbolic heart of rallies that forced president Hosni Mubarak to step down in February -- and across the country are circulating on social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, according to Agence-France Presse.

Thousands of Christian protesters late Tuesday blocked the main coastal road in Egypt’s northern city of Alexandria to call for punishing the Muslims involved in the assaults against churches within the past months.

Protesters also called for the release of more than 90 Christians who have been detained over suspicions of sparking sectarian clashes in the Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba on Saturday, Al Arabiya reported.

Witnesses told Al Arabiya that the protesters clashed with drivers, who insisted to pass through the blocked road. One witness said that there was no presence of either police forces or army troops during the unrest.

Egypt had stepped up security around churches in Cairo on Monday following two days of clashes between minority Christians and Muslims that highlighted rising inter-faith tensions.

The violence that left a church wrecked by fire and more than 238 people wounded at the weekend was triggered by rumors that Christians had abducted a woman who converted to Islam.

Egypt's ruling military council met the prime minister and several cabinet members on Monday to discuss how “to bury the sectarian strife and to deal with the security breakdown,” the state MENA news agency reported.

The clashes pose a challenge for Egypt’s new military rulers, under pressure to impose security and revive the ailing economy while seeking to avoid the tough security tactics against Islamists used by former president Mubarak.

A tight security cordon restricted access around Saint Mina church in Imbaba, the Cairo district where the clashes erupted on Saturday evening and extended into Sunday. Another church, Saint Mary's, was damaged by fire.

The army has said that 190 people arrested after the clashes would be tried in military courts over the violence, according to Reuters.

Security sources said 15 other people were detained on Monday, including the husband of the woman at the center of the violence, as well as a Christian coffee shop owner.

Hundreds of Christians have also staged a sit-in in front of the television station in central Cairo calling for Muslims who had killed Copts and burned churches in recent months to be put on trial.

Dozens of Muslims and Christians earlier chanted: “It is the same play and Copts are the victims.”

“Oh Tantawi, where are you? They burned down my church in front of you!” they said in reference to Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the ruling army council.

Members of Egypt’s Christian minority and even some Muslims have blamed the tensions on the emergence of Salafis, followers of a strict interpretation of Islam who were seen to have been repressed by Mr. Mubarak's security forces.

Others believe remnants of the former president’s regime are to blame.

“I have been living in the neighborhood all my life and I have never seen those Salafis here before,” said Sameh Samy, a 31-year-old Coptic Christian who was inside Saint Mina Church when the attacks began.

Mohammed Tarek, 20, a Muslim resident of Imbaba, said: “I think the old regime is behind this.”

Some Christians said they were thinking of leaving the country.

“There is no more opportunity for Copts especially as the authorities are leaving ignorant people to burn down churches,” said Fawzi Nabeeh, a Coptic Christian engineer, who blamed the incident on “a rise in (Islamic) fundamentalism.”

Four army and security vehicles were outside the Cairo cathedral where Nabeeh spoke, Reuters reported.

Ali Abdul Rahman, the governor of Cairo's Giza region that includes Imbaba, pledged to rebuild Saint Mary's, the state news agency reported.

Christians make up about a tenth of Egypt's 85 million people. Sectarian strife often flares over conversions, family disputes and the building of churches. Muslims and Christians made demonstrations of unity in protests that forced former president Mubarak to step down on February 11, but inter-faith tensions have intensified.

The clashes on Saturday and Sunday were Egypt's worst inter-faith violence since 13 people died on March 9. That incident was prompted by the burning of a church.

The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group widely regarded as Egypt's best organized political force, denounced the violence.

Egypt's highest religious authority, al-Azhar, and the Grand Mufti have also warned against allowing strife to tear the fabric of the country.

Amid Saturday's clashes, one Salafi cleric accused Christians of “terrorism” and denounced the Coptic Pope Shenouda III as “filth,” according to The Associated Press.

“Do you all hear me? All the Christians have weapons, and we Muslims are ignoring it ... We wouldn’t be men if we didn’t set fire to all the churches in Imbaba,” the cleric shouted to a crowd, according to a video of him posted on YouTube.

The violence underlined the uncertainty among Egypt's new rulers, the military's Supreme Council, over how to deal with sectarian tensions and the rising prominence of Salafis. Witnesses said Saturday’s rioting went on for several hours before troops and police intervened.

Ammar Ali Hassan, an Egyptian expert on Islamic groups, said the Imbaba violence appeared to be a wakeup call for the military.

“The army wanted to deal with everyone in a new way, without harsh security,” Mr. Hassan told AP. “But what happened could be the start of a new relation” in which the military will confront “any Salafi cleric trying to preach against other religions.”

(Abeer Tayel of Al Arabiya can be reached at: [email protected])