In response to the destruction of a Christian Coptic church in the southern city of Aswan, Egypt’s Coptic Christians staged a peaceful demonstration in front of the state’s radio and television building last Sunday.
The demonstrations quickly turned violent as protesters and security forces clashed creating the deadliest spark of violence in months.
Most of the clashes were between the protesters and military personnel. However, some perpetrators, assumed to be thugs, are believed to have implanted themselves amidst the Copts and provoked the security forces igniting a deadly response.
Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million residents, accuse the ruling military council, which has been in power since February, of being too lenient on extremists by failing to criminally prosecute those responsible for the acts of violence against the church.
Sectarian tensions have greatly increased since the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak earlier this year. Christians are worried as ultraconservative Muslim ideology – which was banned under Mubarak’s regime – spreads across the country.
“What is taking place is not clashes between Muslims and Christians but attempts to provoke chaos and dissent,” Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said.
According to various news reports, some security officials dressed in riot gear and marched along with civilian Muslims chanting, “The people want to bring down the Christians.”
Accounts of the violence also spread through social media. Hani Bushra, an Egyptian-American, who was attacked in Egypt on Sunday, gave his account of the events via a Facebook note, “Suddenly a mob came to the police saying ‘Christians where are you, Islam is here.’ They were not stopped by anyone and were cheered by army units.”
On the other hand, some Muslims stood side by side with the Copts supporting their cause chanting, “Muslims and Christians are one hand.”
Eyewitnesses claim that security forces fired tear gas, rubber bullets and even live ammunition into the gathering crowd in an attempt to disperse them.
“I saw civilians running past my window as troops fired wildly into the crowds,” Nigel Hetherington, an eyewitness told BBC.
Some of the protesters were run over by military vehicles in retaliation to the killing of at least two security officials. Egypt’s Health Ministry estimated the death toll at over 23 and said there are about 200 wounded.
Gruesome pictures of victims who were crushed by armored military vehicles circulated on the internet and news quickly reached Egyptian-Americans living in the U.S.
“My heart breaks for Christians in Egypt. If this kind of blatant murder happens in a western country, it would be an atrocity and political jargons would be thrown around, so sick of the hypocrisy about human rights,” said Mary Abdelmalak, an Egyptian native, a recent John Carroll University graduate and a current pharmacy student at The Ohio State University. “The question becomes, are we, the so-called generation of ‘change,’ going to stand up and make a difference this time around?”
Earlier this year, Egypt was added to the list of countries named to be the worst violators of religious freedom by the United States commission on international religious freedom.
Egypt is going through a sensitive transitional phase as the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections are scheduled for next month. Sharaf’s cabinet stressed that it will not allow any interference into Egypt’s democratic future claiming that the igniters of this incident are the enemies of the Jan. 25 revolution.
Hazem el Beblawi, the deputy prime minister and who also serves as the finance minister, resigned early Tuesday morning in protest of the government’s handling of the crisis, unconfirmed reports of the entire government’s resignation have circulated around the web.
According to Al-Ahram, a state sponsored newspaper, a cabinet spokesman later clarified that the government has not submitted an official resignation, but has placed the matter under the disposition of the military council.