EGYPT: Christians riot following the death of 7 on Orthodox Christmas
Thousands of angry Egyptian Christians, called Copts, clashed with security forces today after a drive-by shooting outside a church in the town of Nagaa Hammadi, 420 miles south of Cairo, left six Copts and a Muslim security guard dead.
Nine others were also seriously wounded in the shooting.
Anonymous security and hospital officials earlier confirmed that a gunman, accompanied by two others, opened fire on worshipers gathering outside a Nagaa Hammadi church right after the end of the Coptic Orthodox Christmas Mass late on Wednesday night.
Nearly 3,000 Copts took their exasperation over the killings to the town's public hospital this morning, where bodies of the dead, as well as the nine injured, were taken.
Demonstrators who chanted "No to religious oppression!" tried to expand their protests to other Nagaa Hammadi streets. That was when police intervened by firing shots into the air and unleashed tear gas and water cannons in an attempt to disperse the crowd.
Rioters responded by hurling a police station and a mosque with stones and set fire to a number of cars including an ambulance vehicle.
Relatives of the dead and wounded Copts have said that upon the request of security forces, the hospital is refusing to release bodies, fearing the eruption of heated and violent funerals before their burials.
Other eyewitnesses said that families of the dead refused to receive the bodies until the government took action against the shooter.
The Ministry of Interior released a statement this morning announcing that initial investigations have pointed to an ex-convict as the killer, adding that the shooting could be related to the alleged rape of a 12-year-old Muslim girl by a 20-year-old Christian man in a nearby village in November.
The alleged rape stirred religious tensions between neighboring Copts and Muslims, who destroyed and looted Christians' properties over five days, threatening more retaliation.
Bishop Kirollos of Nag Hammadi's church told media that he and other Copts received intimidating phone messages before the Coptic holy season. He supported the ministry's statement regarding the identity of the sniper, while blasting authorities for leaving someone with such a criminal record loose.
"For days, I had expected something to happen on Christmas Day," the bishop told the Associated Press. "Suppose it was vengeance. Where was the security? We are facing a religious war and lack of security," he added.
Egypt's Christians, mostly Copts, form 10% of the country's population. They are the largest non-Muslim community in the Middle East and have long been complaining of religious, social and political discrimination.
Sporadic clashes between Muslim and Copts left eight dead last year.
-- Amro Hassan in Cairo
Photo: Egyptian Copts celebrate Orthodox New Year in the presence of President Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal Mubarak, Wednesday. Credit: Agence France-Presse