CAIRO (Reuters) - One person was killed and more than 80 wounded in clashes at the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in central Cairo on Sunday after a funeral service for four Egyptian Christians killed in sectarian violence with Muslims, state media said.
Christian-Muslim confrontations have increased in Muslim-majority Egypt since the overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 gave freer rein to hard line Islamists repressed under his autocratic rule.
The state news agency MENA said 84 people had been injured in several hours of fighting after a ceremony at the cathedral, headquarters of the Coptic church, which was showered with stones, petrol bombs and bird-shot.
The man killed on Sunday was identified by MENA as 30-year-old Mahrous Hana Tadros, a Christian name.
Police fired tear gas to try to disperse the crowds but clashes continued late into the evening. MENA said 11 policemen were among the wounded.
Violence also broke out near a Coptic church in El Khusus north of Cairo, where four Christians and one Muslim were killed late on Friday when members of both communities started shooting at each other.
MENA said 12 people were wounded, and two apartments and a cafe set on fire by petrol bombs.
In Cairo, trouble erupted after hundreds of angry Copts attended the funeral service at St. Mark’s Cathedral for Friday’s killed Copts, chanting “With our blood and soul we will sacrifice ourselves for the cross.”
Some mourners also shouted slogans calling for the departure of President Mohammed Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement as the coffins were carried head-high into the church.
Mursi condemned the violence, telling Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II in a telephone call that any attack on the cathedral “is like an attack on me personally,” MENA reported.
After an emotional church service, where relatives of the dead wept, young Christians chanted anti-government slogans and started hurling rocks at police officers outside the cathedral, a Reuters reporter at the scene said.
Some protesters, believed to be Copts, smashed six private cars and set two on fire, prompting an angry reaction from Muslims living in the neighbourhood, who threw home-made petrol bombs and stones at them, a witness said.
Muslim residents said they had felt offended by the slogans shouted during the funeral, which was shown on television.
“The Christians chanted slogans provoking the residents,” said Ahmed Mahmoud, a Muslim. “Then the clashes started, they threw stones at each other and they (Christians) lit up a fire and they shot at us with cartridge (birdshot) guns.”
But Remon Wageh, a church worker, blamed what he called radical Muslims for the violence. “The minute the Christians loaded the coffins into cars after the service, a group of bearded radicals threw rocks at us,” he said.
“The police just stood by watching, doing nothing,” he said. “They protected the radicals who were hiding behind a line of officers in the street outside the cathedral.”
Police officers were not available to comment on the accusation. The interior minister later went to the scene at Mursi’s request to investigate but did not speak to the media.
Dozens of people, mostly Copts, took cover in the cathedral compound while petrol bombs and stones rained down from residential buildings across the street in the densely inhabited area, witnesses said. Some of them threw back stones.
Inside the sprawling compound, young people carried several of the wounded, some covered in blood, on stretchers to take them to hospitals. At least one appeared to have been hit by birdshot.
Visiting European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who met Mursi earlier in the day, said in a statement she was extremely worried and had contacted the president’s office to call for restraint and urge the security forces to control the violence.
Pope Tawadros condemned the violence and urged all Egyptians to stay calm and “think carefully” to preserve the nation.
A group of Muslims showed their solidarity with the Christians by attending the funeral service. The Copts allowed them to perform sunset prayers on the cathedral’s courtyard.
“They came to express their condolences and to show solidarity, to show this is not about Christians against Muslims,” said Wageh, who was moved by their gesture.
Actress Tayseer Fahmy, a Muslim, also came to the funeral. “Down, down with the regime of the Murshid,” she told Reuters, referring to the Brotherhood’s spiritual guide Mohamed Badie.
Mursi, who became Egypt’s first democratically elected civilian president in June, has promised to protect the rights of Copts, who make up about 10 percent of the 84 million people.
Christians have complained of attacks on churches by radical Islamists, incidents that have sharpened long-standing Coptic grievances about being sidelined in the workplace and in law.
The president’s office and top Muslim leaders were quick to condemn Friday’s clashes, which happened after Christian children scrawled on the wall of a Muslim religious institute, according to witnesses.
Still, many Christians at the funeral called for Mursi and his Islamist allies to go, some of them chanting “The blood of Christians is not cheap, Mursi, you villain.”
Additional reporting by Reuters Television; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Paul Taylor, Stephen Powell and Todd Eastham