At least 23 Egyptian Christians were killed last night as the country’s worst religious violence since February’s overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the former president, convulsed the capital Cairo.
The city’s fabled Tahrir Square, where people power triumphed over state oppression just eight months ago, resonated to the sound of gunfire and exploding tear gas canisters as rioting Coptic protesters clashed with the Egyptian army and gangs of unknown provenance.
It remains unclear who instigated the confrontation between the Copts, who have been staging regular demonstrations to protest the growing number of attacks on their churches, and the army.
At least three soldiers were reportedly killed after they were overcome by Christian rioters who seized their rifles and turned them against the army.
But witnesses said the army had also opened fire with live ammunition and that one soldier had ploughed an armoured personnel carrier into a group of peaceful protesters holding crosses and singing hymns, running over at least five of them.
The bloody scenes prompted fears that Egypt is drawing ever closer to a sustained religious conflict that cannot be controlled. There were reports of violence erupting in several Egyptian towns and cities with large Christian populations in the aftermath of the pandemonium in Cairo.
Egypt’s leaders appealed for calm from both the country’s Muslim and Christian communities.
“The only beneficiary of these events and acts of violence are the enemies of the January Revolution and the enemies of the Egyptian people, both Muslim and Christian,” Essam Sharaf, Egypt’s interim prime minister, said in a statement.
Egypt’s Coptic community, which accounts for 10 per cent of the country’s 80 million-strong population, has felt increasingly threatened since Mr Mubarak’s fall – even though Christians participated in the revolution that overthrew him.
Thirteen Copts were killed in May, and another 10 two months earlier, after Christian protests were attacked by suspected Islamists.
Yesterday’s march, which attracted 10,000 Copts, was the latest in a series of demonstrations against anti-Christian violence and the army’s perceived reluctance to protect the Community.
As they marched towards the state television building, the focal point of the recent demonstrations, the protesters were attacked by a mob, which set about them with sticks and glass bottles. There were also claims that gunshots were fired at the marchers from a car.
As they progressed, the Christians were repeatedly struck by projectiles thrown from the balconies of nearby homes and even from the upper floors of the state television building itself, witnesses said, and by the time the army arrived the Copts were seething.
Late last night more violence broke out near the hospital where the bodies of those killed in the rioting earlier in the evening were taken.
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