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EGYPT: Muslim sentenced to death for drive-by shootings at Coptic church

January 16, 2011 |  9:25 am


An Egyptian state security court sentenced a Muslim man to death Sunday for killing six Coptic Christians in a drive-by shooting outside a church in southern Egypt last year that jolted the nation and touched off a spate of sectarian violence. 

The verdict against Hamam Kamouny, 39, who was also charged with killing a Muslim security guard at the church, was handed down two weeks after 25 Christian worshippers were killed in a New Year's Day bombing of a church in the coastal city of Alexandria.

The Egyptian government has been under immense pressure from Copts, who feel targeted by local militants and a burgeoning Islamic extremism, much of it emanating from an Al Qaeda-linked group in Iraq. Egypt has attempted to play down the recent violence, which to many Christians, who make up 10% of the population, points up the nation's widening sectarian divide.

Kamouny is one of three suspects charged with the murders by a state security court in Qena province, about 152 miles south of Cairo. His sentence is awaiting final confirmation from Egypt's Grand Mufti, who reviews all death-penalty cases to ensure they comply with Islamic law. The cleric's decision will be announced Feb. 20.

On the same day, a state security court is expected to sentence the two other defendants for the killings that took place in the southern city of Nagaa Hammadi on Coptic Christmas Eve on Jan. 6, 2010. The slayings occured shortly after a Coptic man in the area was arrested for allegedly raping a Muslim girl.

The church killings sparked demonstrations by thousands of angry Copts, who protested against "oppression of the Christian minority" in Egypt and "increase of hatred against Copts."

Christians and Muslims have lived in relative peace in Egypt for centuries, but Sunday's verdict came amid fresh anger over the Alexandria church bombing and last week's shooting rampage on a train by an off-duty policeman that killed a 71-year-old Coptic man and wounded five other Christians.

Egypt's state security courts, which offer no right of appeal, were set up under the country's emergency law, which has been in effect since 1981.

-- Amro Hassan and Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo

Photo: a Coptic protest in Cairo following the Alexandria bombing. Credit: Agence France-Presse / Getty Images