Cairo: Mob Attacks Coptic Christians in Cathedral

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Egyptian state media reported that one person was killed and more than 80 wounded in clashes at the St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in central Cairo after a funeral service for four Egyptian Christians killed in sectarian violence with Muslims.

Hundreds of Christians were under siege inside Cairo’s Coptic cathedral as security forces and local residents, some armed with handguns, launched a prolonged and unprecedented attack on the headquarters of Egypt’s ancient Church.

At least one person was killed and at least 84 injured as Christians inside the walled St Mark’s cathedral compound came under a frenzied assault from their assailants.

Following the funeral service, thousands of Christians poured out on to the street and began chanting slogans against Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian President and long-time member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Copts chanted, "With our blood and soul we will sacrifice ourselves for the cross." They shouted slogans calling for the departure of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement as the coffins were carried head-high into the church.

The funeral was for four Copts who were killed in the city of Khosous, about 10 miles (15km) north of Cairo, after inflammatory symbols were drawn on an Islamic institute, provoking an argument. A melee ensued and the four Copts, along with one Muslim, were killed.

Witnesses reported that the violence at the funeral began when a mob attacked the mourners as they exited the cathedral, pelting them with bottles, stones and petrol bombs. The Christians responded by throwing stones back until police arrived and attempted to quell the unrest, firing tear gas into the cathedral compound. After being hit by rocks thrown from the roofs of nearby buildings, the mourners were reportedly forced back into the cathedral compound.

The dispute escalated into a gun battle between Christian and Muslim residents, and Christian-owned shops were attacked. Violence flared again the next day, with police reporting more sectarian fighting on the streets and clashes between police and youths. Mahrous Hana Ibrahim, 30, a Christian, was killed during the bloody onslaught. 

Egypt's Minister of Interior, Gen. Mohammed Ibrahim, and other key officials have arrived at St. Mark's Cathedral to inspect the general security situation.

Egypt's President Morsi held high-level meetings with key advisors to address the outbreak of violence and called for an immediate investigation into the cathedral attack. He also phoned Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, to offer his condolences. "Any attack against the cathedral is like an attack against me personally," Morsi told the pope.

Handguns and other weapons, many of them homemade, are becoming a more common feature of the violence that has regularly tormented the country since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. "I’m worried about the situation in Egypt," said Makram Girgis as he sat on the steps leading up to the imposing cathedral building.

Coptic Christians, who make up roughly 10 percent of Egypt's 83 million people, have repeatedly alleged that the Morsi government has failed to protect them since former leader Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011.

During the latter years of the Mubarak-era, clashes between Muslim and Christian erupted periodically. Since Mubarak's ousting in early 2011, incidents of sectarian violence, both in the capital and in Egypt's countryside, have occurred with increasing frequency.  Recent months have seen escalated tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians. The current sectarian hostilities and the chaotic clash at the cathedral represent some of the worst of the recent violence.

"The Muslim Brotherhood and extremist groups here want us to leave. They don’t accept Copts. But this was our country, ever since the time of the pharaohs," Girgis said.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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