Egypt‘s revolution put the issue of how to protect its beleaguered Coptic Christian population on the back burner. But a fatal clash Tuesday between Muslims and Copts in Cairo has turned attention once again to religious tensions, which gained the spotlight after the bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria on New Year‘s Eve. In an overwhelmingly Muslim country, where does this religious minority fit in. And who are the Copts?
What was yesterday’s clash about?
Fighting broke out Tuesday when Cairo’s Copts gathered in a Cairo suburb to protest the burning of a Coptic church last week. Several Copts and Muslims were killed in the fighting, which was followed by arson attacks in one of the city’s predominantly Christian neighborhoods.
Yesterday’s clashes continued into the night. The Copts staged the protests to demand that the transitional government rebuild the church that was burned last week, publicly promise improvements for Egypt’s Copts, and thoroughly investigate the incident.
Egypt’s Coptic population has been plagued by violence in the last year. A New Year’s Eve bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria remains unsolved and there were clashes in the fall when authorities halted construction of a Coptic church in Cairo.
At least 11 people have been killed and around 100 others injured in religious clashes with Muslims in the Egyptian capital Cairo.
A security source told Al Jazeera that of the 11 that were killed on Tuesday, six were Coptic, five were Muslim and that at least 25 people were arrested by the country’s military police for their involvement in the clashes.
The deaths on Tuesday occurred in the working-class district of Moqattam after at least 1,000 Copts gathered to protest the burning of a church last week.
It was the second burst of sectarian fighting in as many days and the latest in a string of violent protests over a variety of topics as simmering unrest continues nearly a month after mass protests led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
“The military intervened to prevent further clashes, but the episode underscores the simmering tension between the two communities,” he said.
Fighting broke out mid-afternoon, and people threw rocks from both sides. Witnesses said soldiers at the scene fired shots into the air to disperse the crowds.
The protest outside Cairo’s radio and television building also came a day after at least 2,000 Copts demanded the re-building of the torched church, and that those responsible be brought to justice.
The Shahedain [Two Martyrs] church, in the Helwan provincial city of Sol, was set ablaze on Friday after clashes between Copts and Muslims left at least two people dead.
The violence was triggered by a feud between two families, which disapproved of a romantic relationship between a Christian man and a Muslim woman in Sol.
There are around 7,000 Christians in Sol, out of a total population of 50,000.
“Problems escalated in the village when a group of Muslims headed to the burned out church and conducted a mass prayer there,” Maged Ibrahim, a local resident told state television.
On Monday, Egypt’s ruling military council vowed to have the church rebuilt and prosecute those behind the arson attack.
History of animosity
There is a long history of animosity between Copts and Muslims in Egypt, though there have been recent signs of a rapprochement following a deadly New Year’s Day bombing of a church in Alexandria and during the recent popular uprising that unseated long-time president Mubarak.
Twenty-one people died and dozens more were wounded when what was believed to be a suicide bomber blew himself up just after midnight on New Year’s as worshippers left a church in the port city of Alexandria.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, which came after an al-Qaeda-linked group said it was behind a deadly church hostage-taking in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad,and threatened Coptic Christians as well.
But as Copts celebrated their Christmas on January 7, thousands of Muslims gathered at churches across the country, forming human shields to protect them as they worshipped.
And during anti-Mubarak protests in Cairo in January, there were also cases of Copts doing the same for Muslims as they prayed in Tahrir Square.
Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s 80 million population, complain of systematic discrimination and have been the target of several sectarian attacks.
Tahrir Square was the symbolic heart of anti-Mubarak protests
Hundreds of people armed with knives and machetes have clashed with pro-democracy activists in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Egyptian state TV says.
Footage showed stones being thrown by both sides in the square. At least two people were reportedly injured.
The people who entered Tahrir wanted to force the activists continuing a sit-in out of the square, reports say.
Tahrir Square was the epicentre of protests that forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down last month.
“Hundreds of men carrying knives and swords entered Tahrir,” the AFP news agency quoted a report on Egypt’s state TV as saying.
The TV channel showed footage of hundreds of people involved in a stand-off and throwing stones at each other.
“A group of gangsters attacked us with stones, they seemed to be wanting us to leave the square,” Gamal Hussein, one of the pro-democracy protester, later told Reuters.
Groups of activists have continued to gather in Tahrir Square even after Mr Mubarak’s departure. They are demanding a complete break with the Mubarak regime.
But critics say it is time for life to return to normal in the Egyptian capital.
Insecurity has been rife across Egypt after police disappeared from the streets of major cities during the mass protests.
On Tuesday, at least 13 people died and 140 were injured in clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Cairo.
Egypt’s military, currently governing the country, has struggled to keep control of the situation.