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EGYPT: New laws planned to fight sectarian violence

May 12, 2011 |  3:19 pm

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Clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians that left a dozen people dead last week have led the Egyptian government to consider new regulations criminalizing sectarian violence.

A new committee will consider laws banning protests outside places of worship and prohibiting the use of religious slogans by political parties, as well as forming a unified law for building houses of worship, according to a statement released Wednesday by the Egyptian ministers' Cabinet.

Coptic Christians, about 10% of Egypt’s population of 80 million, have long complained that the Egyptian government forces them to overcome onerous bureaucratic red tape in order to build new churches, while Muslim counterparts have no difficulty constructing new mosques. 

Timeline: Revolution in Egypt

Tensions soared in Egypt on Saturday when several thousand conservative, or Salafi, Muslims rioted around a church in Giza, about 12 miles southwest of the capital, following allegations that a female Muslim convert was being held there against her will by Coptic priests.

Copts gathered around the church to prevent Muslims from entering. The confrontation that seemed inevitable was soon triggered as bullets and Molotov cocktails began flying.

More than 240 people were injured and a nearby church was torched.

The woman in question, Abeer Talaat Fakhry, broke her silence and spoke to Egyptian and Arab media on Monday, confirming that she converted to Islam last September and was abducted and held inside the Coptic church. She said she managed to escape amid Saturday’s violence.

While her story was disputed by a Giza priest, local news site Dostor.org published a purported copy of a certificate proving her conversion.

A number of Islamic clerics have argued that Fakhry converted to divorce her Coptic husband and marry a Muslim. Coptic Christians in Egypt cannot obtain a civil divorce.

Egyptian military authorities have detained more than 200 suspects in connection with Saturday’s violence, including a Salafi cleric accused of inciting hatred against Copts in a video streamed online before clashes erupted.

A fact-finding panel appointed by the National Council for Human Rights said Wednesday that "groups that can be described as thugs" and might be related to the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak may have played a role in igniting Saturday's clashes in order to disrupt Egypt's post-revolution progress.

Hundreds of Copts have been protesting outside Egyptian state TV headquarters in Cairo since Sunday, calling for the swift capture and trial of those responsible for the clashes and demanding better protection in their homeland.

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Timeline: Revolution in Egypt

-- Amro Hassan in Cairo

Photo: A church burns during Saturday's clashes in Giza. Credit. Ben Curtis / Associated Press

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