‘Religious War’ Fears after Attack at Midnight Mass

15-12-2011 09:05 AM

Sheera Frenkel

Clashes erupted between Coptic Christians and Muslims in several southern Egyptian towns after an attack that left seven Copts dead.
Thousands of Christians fought with police during a funeral procession for those killed in the attack, which happened as churchgoers left a midnight Mass celebrating the Coptic Christmas on Wednesday night. Witnesses said that three gunmen in a vehicle opened fire on a crowd near the church, killing seven people and wounding nine.
The attack happened in Nag Hammadi, part of the impoverished and conservative southern province of Qena.
Relatives of those killed called for revenge, and fighting reportedly broke out near the hospital mortuary where the bodies were being kept.
Mahmoud Gohar, the head of security in Qena province, said that the lead attacker responsible for the drive-by killings had been identified as a known criminal but had not yet been arrested. Mr Gohar said that security forces had been deployed in nearby towns and villages to try to quell tensions. Roughly 10% of Egypt’s 80 million majority Muslim population are Coptic Christians.
Bishop Kirollos, of the local diocese, said that the latest events were part of a “religious war”. “It is all religious now. This is a religious war about how they can finish off the Christians in Egypt,” he said.
The bishop told Egyptian media that he witnessed the attack as he left the church after Mass. “A driving car swerved near me, so I took the back door. By the time I shook hands with someone at the gate, I heard the mayhem, lots of machinegun shots,” he said.
The bishop said that there had been warning of a possible attack in revenge for the alleged rape of a 12-year-old Muslim girl by a Coptic youth. He said that he had received threats, including a text message sent to his mobile phone reading: “It is your turn.”
“I did nothing with it. My faithful were also receiving threats in the streets, some shouting at them: ‘We will not let you have festivities’. For days I had expected something to happen on Christmas Day.”
An Amnesty International report said that sectarian attacks on Coptic Christians increased in 2008.
Tensions have increased in recent years — often fuelled by disputes over women or land. Coptic Christians complain of widespread discrimination, including severe restrictions on religious building sites.
The Times, London

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