CAIRO – Gunfire rang out as a priest and his congregation prayed Sunday inside a church that hours earlier had been set on fire by a Muslim mob in a wave of deadly sectarian violence threatening Egypt’s aspirations for a new democracy.
Riot police fired into the air to disperse the crowd outside the Virgin Mary Church in an impoverished neighborhood of Cairo. The noise startled about 30 Coptic Christians who had spent the morning sweeping up charred vestments and burned Scriptures after a night of clashes that left 12 people dead and more than 230 wounded.
“Welcome to hell,” said Samuel Maher, standing in the scorched vestibule as a woman wept nearby in a pew beneath a melted ceiling fan. Congregants leaned on blackened walls in disbelief as Father Metias, a wooden cross in his hand, spoke into the light of a TV camera about the intensifying danger of sectarian hatred.
“A lot of Muslims and extremists are being manipulated in the name of religion,” said Father Metias, who goes by one name. “They come to attack us after they are brainwashed and incited against us.”
The bloodshed unnerved the country’s military-led government. Acting Prime Minister Essam Sharaf canceled a trip to the Persian Gulf and called an emergency Cabinet session to deal with the crisis. The army said the 190 people arrested in the clashes would face military tribunals as a “deterrent to all those who think of toying with the potential of the nation.”
The sharp rise in tensions come as ultraconservative Islamists have grown emboldened following the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak in February. Attacks on Christians also point to the government’s failure to establish law and order by rebuilding police and security forces.
The deepening religious intolerance is hurting Egypt’s image and further jeopardizing tourism and foreign investment. About 5,000 Copts staged a sit-in Sunday night in Cairo demanding an end to persecution.
Copts make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population and have coexisted with Muslims for generations. Violence against Christians, however, became more pronounced last year after Muslim gunmen killed six parishioners outside a church in southern Egypt. In January, at least 21 people died in a church bombing in Alexandria. The attacks suggested that Mubarak’s police state couldn’t – or chose not to – stem extremist Islamic elements.
Mistrust between religions has spread since Mubarak was forced from power. Ultraconservative Islamists, known as Salafis, have taken to streets and mosques with fiery rhetoric. “This hatred is not new but before the Salafis were afraid of Mubarak’s police,” said David Saleeb, standing outside the Virgin Mary Church, a cross tattooed on his forearm. “But now there is no security and they are free to attack. They want to turn this neighborhood into a place of Sharia law. They want full control.”
The violence that erupted in the Imbaba neighborhood began Saturday evening when rumor spread that a Christian woman who converted to Islam after marrying a Muslim had been abducted and was being held in the Church of St. Mena. There was no proof that there was a woman in the church.