By MAGGIE MICHAEL The Associated Press
CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt’s Coptic church blasted authorities Monday for allowing repeated attacks on Christians with impunity as the death toll from a night of rioting rose to 26, most of them Christians who were trying to stage a peaceful protest in Cairo over an attack on a church.
The spiritual leader of the Coptic Christian minority, Pope Shenouda III, declared three days of mourning, praying and fasting for the victims starting today and also presided over funerals for some of the Christians killed. Sunday’s sectarian violence was the worst in Egypt since the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in February.
“Strangers got in the middle of our sons and committed mistakes to be blamed on our sons,” the Coptic church said in a statement. It lamented “problems that occur repeatedly and go unpunished.”
The clashes Sunday night raged over a large section of downtown Cairo and drew in Christians, Muslims and security forces. They began when about 1,000 Christian protesters tried to stage a peaceful sit-in outside the state television building along the Nile in downtown Cairo. The protesters said they were attacked by “thugs” with sticks and the violence then spiralled out of control after a speeding military vehicle jumped up onto a sidewalk and rammed into some of the Christians.
There is no precise breakdown of how many Christians and Muslims were among the victims, but the 26 are believed to be mostly Christian. Officials said at least three soldiers were among the dead. Nearly 500 people were injured. Egypt’s official news agency said dozens have been arrested.
Much smaller skirmishes broke out again Monday outside the Coptic Hospital where many of the Christian victims were taken the night before. Several hundred Christians pelted police with rocks outside while the screams of grieving women rang out from inside the hospital. Some of the hundreds of men gathered outside held wooden crosses, and empty coffins were lined up outside the hospital.
There was no word on casualties from the new clashes.
The ruling military condemned the surge in deadly violence as an attempt to undermine the state, and warned it will act to safeguard the peace.
The generals’ strong words signalled the governing military council will tighten its grip on power, further infuriating activists who have demanded an end to army rule and a transition to democracy.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has condemned the sectarian violence.
Baird said in a statement Monday that religious extremism has no place in modern Egypt and urged all parties to work together to build a society where religious communities can live and prosper together.
In Washington, the White House said President Barack Obama is deeply concerned about the violence in Egypt and called for restraint on all sides.
“As the Egyptian people shape their future, the United States continues to believe that the rights of minorities — including Copts — must be respected, and that all people have the universal rights of peaceful protest and religious freedom,” a White House statement said.
“These tragic events should not stand in the way of timely elections and a continued transition to democracy that is peaceful, just and inclusive.”
Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s 85 million people, blame the ruling military council that took power after the uprising for being too lenient on those behind a spate of anti-Christian attacks since Mubarak’s ouster.
The chaotic power transition has left a security vacuum, and the Coptic Christian minority is particularly worried about a show of force by ultra-conservative Islamists, known as Salafis.
In recent weeks, riots have broken out at two churches in southern Egypt, prompted by Muslim crowds angry over church construction. One riot broke out near the city of Aswan, even after church officials agreed to a demand by Salafis that a cross and bells be removed from the building.
Aswan’s governor, Gen. Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyed, further raised tensions by suggesting to the media that the church construction was illegal.