Clashes in Cairo Leave 12 Dead and 2 Churches in Flames
CAIRO — A night of street fighting between hundreds of Muslims and Christians left at least 12 people dead and two churches in flames on Sunday in the latest outbreak of sectarian tensions in the three months since the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
By lifting the heavy hand of the Mubarak police state, the revolution unleashed long-suppressed sectarian animosities that have burst out with increasing ferocity, threatening the recovery of Egypt’s tourist economy and the stability of its hoped-for transition to democracy.
Officials of the Interior Ministry said at least six Christians and at least six Muslims had died, and about 220 people were wounded, including at least 65 who were struck by bullets.
The Egyptian authorities vowed a swift response. The military council governing the country announced military trials for 190 people arrested in the violence. Civilian authorities promised increased security at houses of worship and a new ban on demonstrations outside such institutions. The interim prime minister, Essam Sharaf, canceled a trip abroad to preside over an emergency cabinet meeting, and Egypt’s most respected Muslim religious authority, the sheik of Al Azhar, denounced the violence.
“Egypt has already become a nation in danger,” Justice Minister Abdel Aziz al-Gindi said after the cabinet meeting, vowing to strike “with an iron hand” to preserve national security.
But by nightfall thousands of unsatisfied Christians — members of the indigenous Coptic Orthodox minority that makes up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population — gathered in protest outside the state television building, closing a main thoroughfare. Adapting the chants and tactics of the Tahrir Square sit-in and exercising their new freedom of assembly, the Copts accused the military government of indifference; called for the resignation of the military leader, Field MarshalMohamed Hussein Tantawi; and vowed not to leave.
To prevent renewed violence, an overwhelming force of hundreds of heavily armed soldiers and riot police officers occupied the Cairo neighborhood where the clashes took place, a tangle of filth-covered alleys known as Imbaba, where they blocked access to the area around the Church of St. Mina, the church at the center of the battle. Garbage fires set nearby during the clashes still smoldered Sunday morning, and burned-out car frames sat in the streets.
A police report and many Christians in the neighborhood sought to place the blame for the violence on Salafis — adherents to an ascetic and often apolitical variant of Muslim traditionalism that is becoming a catch-all term for Islamic militancy here as mainstream Islamists focus increasingly on the ballot box.
But many Christian as well as Muslim witnesses said there did not appear to be any organized group or guiding ideology behind the violence or church burnings. Instead, people on both sides said that the fighting pitted one group of frustrated and underemployed young men from the neighborhood against another, along battle lines that had more to do with tribal allegiances than any religious or political ideas.
Like many recent episodes of Muslim-Christian violence here, the strife started with rumors about an interfaith romance and a woman’s abduction. According to a police report, a Muslim named Yassim Thaabet Anwar from a city up the Nile had come to Imbaba looking for his wife. He said she was a former Christian from the neighborhood who had converted to Islam in 2010 but had recently disappeared. And he asserted she had been kidnapped and held in the Church of St. Mina against her will — a pattern of allegations that has recurred in several recent high-profile episodes of sectarian conflict.
Christians in the neighborhood said that there was no such woman in the church, and, by Sunday night, the local police and government officials agreed.
But early Saturday evening, Christian men in the neighborhood began receiving phone calls from friends warning that a group of Salafis was approaching the church. More than 500 raced to defend it, armed with sticks, knives and other makeshift weapons, according to Christian residents and the police report.
By about 6 p.m., according to Christians and the report, they far outnumbered the Muslims. About 20 had arrived to ask about the woman who was said to be missing. But soon similar calls for backup went out to Muslim men around the neighborhood, and within about an hour at least 500 Muslims had gathered as well. The police report described a crowd of a total of 1,500 Christians and Muslims, which later grew to 2,000.
“You get a phone call that says, ‘Come quick. A big sheik’s wife has been taken into the church, and he is calling on people help to get his wife out,’ ” said Hussein Qheder, an Imbaba resident who was recently released after 14 years in prison for his work with an Islamist political group. (He also recently demonstrated at the American Embassy here in Cairo for the release of Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheik who is serving a life sentence in the United States after being convicted in a conspiracy to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993.)
But though he said he “would be considered an extremist,” he declined to answer the request because the caller could not provide more details. “In this period we are in, we cannot bear this kind of talk,” he said. “This could kill the revolution.”
By 8 p.m. on Saturday, shots had been fired from a rooftop or balcony. The police report said that Christians had fired in the air, and Alaa Ayed, 25, a Christian in the crowd, acknowledged that his side might have been the first to open fire.
“How can they say we started it when we are defending our church?” he asked. “I am going to defend my church and my house, and if that injures someone, I can’t help it.”
The mobs began battling with clubs, knives, bricks and Molotov cocktails, and there were occasional gunshots from windows and roofs. Security forces arrived and fired tear gas at the crowd, but the battle continued, exacerbated by a blackout. Muslims set fire to the Church of St. Mina, and, after midnight, to the nearby Church of the Virgin Mary. Administrators at the neighborhood hospital said the battle continued until at least 4 a.m. on Sunday.
In March, clashes between Muslims and Christians in the town of Helwan killed 13 and left a church there in flames. In that instance, the spark was a rumored romance between a Muslim woman and a Christian man.
The strife broke out Saturday just hours after another sectarian saga had appeared to close. Muslims and Christians in Egypt have argued since last summer about Camilia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic Christian priest who disappeared for a time. Many Muslims believe she tried to convert to Islam, only to be kidnapped by her husband and members of the Coptic Church.
In retaliation for her purported abduction, Islamist militants carried out a church bombing as far away as Iraq and threatened churches in Egypt. Among the churches threatened was one in Alexandria wherean explosion on Jan. 1 killed more than 20 Copts. As recently as Friday, hundreds of Muslims and Copts held rival demonstrations about her case in Cairo.
Many Muslims have insisted that to lay the allegations to rest, Ms. Shehata should appear on television to declare her faith and marriage, and on Saturday she appeared with her husband on a satellite television network owned by a prominent Christian businessman here. Egyptians should move on, she said, just hours before the violence broke out in Imbaba.