CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt stepped up security around churches in Cairo Monday after two days of clashes between minority Christians and Muslims that killed 12 people and 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 rumours that Christians had abducted a woman who converted to Islam.
Egypt’s ruling military council met the prime minister and several cabinet members 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 Hosni Mubarak.
A tight security cordon restricted access around Saint Mina church in Imbaba, the Cairo district where the clashes erupted 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.
Security sources said 15 other people were detained on Monday, including the husband of the woman at the centre 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 burnt churches in recent months to be put on trial.
In the northern city of Alexandria, hundreds of Christians blocked the main coastal road to protest against the Cairo violence, sparking clashes with drivers.
Dozens of Muslims and Christians earlier chanted: “It is the same play and Copts are the victims.”
“Oh Tantawi, where are you? They burnt down my church in front of you!” they said in reference to Field Marshal Mohamed 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 Salafists, followers of a strict interpretation of Islam who were seen to have been repressed by Mubarak’s security forces.
Others believe remnants of the Mubarak regime are to blame.
“I have been living in the neighbourhood all my life and I have never seen those Salafists here before,” said Sameh Samy, a 31-year-old Coptic Christian who was inside Saint Mina Church when the attacks began.
Mohamed 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.
Political analyst Nabil Abdel Fattah, of the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said Islamists and remnants of the old regime were behind the violence.
“Salafists ... are trying to win ground after the revolution and they think that violence will get them power,” he said. “And of course, they are doing so with the help of remnants of the old regime.”
Ali Abdel-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 80 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 overthrew Mubarak on February 11, but inter-faith tensions have intensified.
The clashes 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.
Justice Minister Mohamed el-Guindy said gatherings around places of worship would be banned to prevent sectarian strife.
The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group widely regarded as Egypt’s best organised 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.
Additional reporting by Dina Zayed; Writing by Edmund Blair and Sami Aboudi; Editing by Andrew Heavens