Coptic Christians say they are the target of the worst wave of violence to engulf Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak was forced from office Feb. 11. Thirteen people were killed in street battles that erupted in Cairo Tuesday and Wednesday after Copts (who comprise about 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million people) blocked streets to protest the destruction of a church. While some reports say as many as five of the dead were Muslims, Copts maintain that all 13 were Christians.
The Copts have long complained of pervasive discrimination at the hands of Egypt's Muslim majority. Reports say the church in Sol, Egypt, was destroyed by arson and hammer-wielding radicals last week in response to a feud involving Muslim and Christian families. This year began with a suicide attack on Coptic worshippers as they left a church in Alexandria: 21 people were killed in the attack that occurred just after midnight Jan. 1.
That attack followed months of anti-Christian incitement by Egyptian Salafists who staged regular demonstrations outside churches in Cairo and Alexandria. The Salafists accused the Coptic Church of kidnapping two Christian women who were rumored to have attempted to convert to Islam.
Tuesday's fighting began hours after hundreds of men roughed up female demonstrators who had come to Cairo's Tahrir Square (scene of scores of protests that ended Mubarak's 29-year reign as president) to celebrate International Women's Day, the Wall Street Journal reported. The women had gathered there to demand greater rights and opportunities. Some were reported to have been sexually assaulted.
Later in the day, 500 Christians who gathered in downtown Cairo were surrounded by a crowd of several thousand Muslims. Young men then set a factory and nearby apartment buildings on fire. Christians who witnessed the fighting said soldiers stood by for hours, and some claim the police fired on Christian protesters.
"What have we gotten from this revolution?" asked Rifaat Atif, a Christian pharmacist who watched the fighting. "We don't trust the army anymore. The money has stopped. There's no security."
On Wednesday, soldiers carried out "cursory patdowns" of demonstrators at a Cairo rally in front of the state television building in Cairo, where Copts vowed to stay until their church was rebuilt, the Washington Post reported.