CAIRO/JEDDAH: Thousands clashed with police during a funeral procession Thursday for six of seven people killed in an attack on churchgoers leaving a midnight mass for Coptic Christians, security officials said.
Two Copts injured in the shooting died Thursday night. Their deaths brought the number of Copts killed in the attack to eight, most of them teenagers. A Muslim policeman guarding the church was also killed in the attack.
Throughout the day, protesters in the southern town of Nag Hammadi pelted police with rocks and damaged cars and stores.
Early in the day, they smashed ambulances outside a hospital in frustration over delays in turning over the bodies for burial. A security official said police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.
The riots resumed after the burial services, with angry Copts smashing shop windows, chasing Muslims off the streets and bringing down street light poles. The riots continued into the late afternoon.
The riots followed an attack the previous night, in which three gunmen in a car sprayed automatic gunfire into a crowd leaving a church in Nag Hammadi, about 40 miles north of the ancient ruins of Luxor.
The lead attacker was identified by authorities as a known criminal.
Christians, mostly Copts, account for about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of some 80 million people. They generally live in peace with Muslims although clashes and tensions occasionally occur in southern Egypt, mostly over land or church construction disputes.
Wednesday’s attack happened on Coptic Christmas Eve. Copts celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7 along with many other Orthodox communities around the world.
Egypt’s Interior Ministry said it suspected that Wednesday’s attack was in retaliation for the alleged November rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian man in the same town. The man is in custody awaiting trial.
Security was tight in the town Thursday as police searched for suspects. The release of bodies was delayed because of fear the funerals would turn into a flash point for more violence.
The funeral procession took place later and was attended by local officials. Security officials said some 5,000 protesters stoned police cars and scuffled with security forces. Shops were forced to shut their doors in the town to avoid the violence.
The head of provincial security, Mahmoud Gohar, said security was beefed up in the town and neighboring villages, and checkpoints were set up in the area as tensions ran high among the town’s Christian population.
Gohar said an angry crowd from a nearby church smashed two police cars shortly after the attack.
The attack, he said, happened in the town’s main street about 200 meters from the church.
Bishop Kirollos of the Nag Hammadi Diocese told The Associated Press he was concerned about violence on the eve of the Coptic Christmas because of previous threats following the alleged rape of the 12-year-old Muslim girl.
He recently received a message on his mobile phone that said: “It is your turn.” He told AFP that he saw gunmen spraying worshippers with automatic gunfire outside the archbishopric after the mass ended the previous night.
“We concluded the mass at 11:00 p.m. (2100 GMT) and I was heading to the bishopric when I saw one of the men, in a car, open fire with an automatic rifle at Copts who were walking past the building,” Kirilos said in a phone interview. The bishop said the “author of this crime has a police record and should have been arrested” for past crimes, but is under the protection of prominent figures.
Egyptian expatriate workers in the Kingdom told Arab News that the tribal issue could snowball into a bigger conflict.
“This is what is happening in Nag Hammadi,” said Mamdouh Al-Hawari, who hails from Farshout, a place close to the flash point. Al-Hawari, who works as a journalist in Jeddah, said when a Muslim girl from the Hawara tribe was raped by a Copt youth, the tribe wanted to take revenge. The clashes are in retaliation for the rape incident. “It’s wrong to call it a communal riot,” he said.
Syed Abdul Hakeem, a marketing executive from Nag Hammadi, said the fighting took place because of tension between Muslims and Christians in the area. He described the area as a stronghold of Christians. He said there were heated verbal exchanges between leaders of the two religious groups before Thursday’s clashes.
Abdul Hakeem urged Egyptian authorities to find the root causes for tension between the two communities in the area in order to solve them. “Muslims and Christians have been living peacefully in Egypt since the dawn of Islam,” he pointed out.
Abdul Raheem Al-Shaqifi said Nag Hammadi and Farshout had never witnessed any communal conflict in the past.
Amgad Shehata Boutros, attending the funeral of the Copts on Thursday, told Al Jazeera: “The incident is an attempt to create sectarian tension in Nag Hammadi?”
— With input from agencies