Hundreds of Muslims — some of whom were apparently Salafists, or extremist Islamists — descended on the Saint Mina Church in the Cairo suburb of Imbaba yesterday (Saturday), demanding that the Christians within hand over a woman they claimed had converted to Islam and was being held against her will. (If that sounds familiar, it should; the kidnapped convert accusation has been used several times before by Egyptian Islamists as a pretext to attack a church.) The Christians, who had been tipped off that Muslims were on their way and spoiling for a fight, had already assembled a group numbering in the hundreds to defend the church.
The clash quickly devolved into mayhem. Men attacked each other hand-to-hand with knives, clubs and bricks. Both sides began firing guns. Muslims threw firebombs into the church. As the hours passed, they are reported to have moved through the neighborhood, torching homes, storming apartment complexes and looting businesses owned by Copts.
Reports differ on how long it took the security authorities to arrive, but a wave of soldiers and police eventually appeared, shooting rounds into the air and firing teargas at the crowds. About 200 people were arrested. When the dust settled, at least six Christians and at least five Muslims were dead and about 230 wounded, 65 of them shot, according to the Interior Ministry. Both the Saint Mina Church and the nearby Virgin Mary Church had been set alight and severely damaged.
Hundreds of heavily armed soldiers and riot police are still in the neighborhood, and security has been stepped up at other Christian houses of worship. The entire Imbaba neighborhood has been cordoned off. Interim PM Essam Sharaf canceled a trip to the Persian Gulf to preside over an emergency meeting of the cabinet. Justice Minister Abdel Aziz Al Gindi said in response to the strife that Egypt has become “a nation in danger,” and promised that the authorities will use an “iron hand” to protect national security. The military council has called on “all communities in Egypt, the youth of the revolution, the national forces and Islamic and Christian scholars to stand like a wall against any attempt by the forces of evil and darkness to tear the national fabric.”
The Sheikh of Al-Azhar — identified by the New York Times as “Egypt’s most respected Muslim religious authority” — denounced the violence, and the Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa, another senior Muslim figure, urged calm. “All Egyptians must stand shoulder to shoulder and prevent strife,” he said, adding that it was up to the military council to take action to protect national security.
Some members of the Christian community have lost faith in the military to protect them, with some voicing the suspicion that its members are not only ineffective but actively on the side of the Muslims. The Bishop of Giza, Anba Theodosius, is quoted in AINA as saying, “We have no law or security, we are in a jungle.” Copts are said to be staging a sit-in outside the US embassy in Cairo in the hope of gaining international protection, and Al-Jazeera reports that several thousand Copts have gathered in front of Egyptian state television, demanding the resignation of the country’s military ruler.