Middle East

Egypt clashes: Copts mourn victims of Cairo unrest

Thousands of Egyptian Coptic Christians have gathered for the funerals of protesters killed during clashes with security forces in Cairo on Sunday.

Many mourners expressed anger at the army, which they blame for the deaths.

The protesters say they were attacked by thugs before the security forces fired on them and drove military vehicles into the crowds.

The ruling military council has ordered a swift inquiry into the violence, in which 25 people died.

The council, which was handed the power to govern by President Hosni Mubarak before he was ousted in a popular revolt, is in temporary charge of the country while elections are organised.

US President Barack Obama called for restraint "so that Egyptians can move forward together to forge a strong and united Egypt".

"These tragic events should not stand in the way of timely elections and a continued transition to democracy that is peaceful, just and inclusive," he said in a statement.

The Copts, who make up about 10% of Egypt's 85 million population, have a number of grievances against the interim administration.

They say the authorities have been slow to punish radical Islamists who have attacked their churches.

Infiltrators blamed

Sunday's protest was sparked by the burning down of a church in the southern Aswan province.

On Monday there were more angry scenes and low-level clashes between security forces and Copts, who had gathered for the funerals.

Many mourners directed their anger against the military, and particularly the head of the military council Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi.

"Tantawi you traitor, the blood of Copts is not cheap," Christians chanted outside the hospital where the bodies of their loved ones had been stored.

Others called for Field Marshal Tantawi to be deposed.

In addition to the 25 people who were killed on Sunday, hundreds more were injured.

It is not clear how many of those killed were Christians, but the authorities said three soldiers were among the dead.

Coptic Church leader Pope Shenuda III blamed Sunday's violence on infiltrators.

"The Christian faith denounces violence. Strangers infiltrated the demonstration and committed the crimes for which the Copts have been blamed," the pope said in a statement.

The military called on the government to carry out a quick investigation into the clashes by "forming a fact-finding committee to determine what happened and take legal measures against all those proven to have been involved".

Security has been stepped up at vital installations in Cairo, with additional troops deployed outside parliament and the cabinet building in anticipation of further unrest.

Election tension

Thousands of people - mainly but not exclusively Christians - joined Sunday's march from the Shubra district of northern Cairo to the state TV building in Maspero Square.

They were calling on the military council to sack the governor of Aswan province.

They also accused state TV of fanning the flames of anti-Christian agitation.

The demonstrators said they were assaulted by attackers in plain clothes before the clashes with the security forces broke out.

The violence began outside the state TV building but soon spread to Tahrir Square, the centre of the demonstrations which led to President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in February.

There were reports of thousands joining in the street violence, attacking both sides. Rioters tore up the pavement and hurled stones.

Christians in Egypt have been worried by the increasing show of strength by ultra-conservative Islamists.

In May, 12 people died in attacks on Coptic churches. In March, 13 people were killed in clashes between Muslims and Copts in Tahrir Square.

A parliamentary election is scheduled for 28 November, the first such vote since Mr Mubarak was ousted.

The Copts, the largest minority in Egypt, complain of discrimination, including a law requiring presidential permission for churches to be built.

And the country recognises only conversions from Christianity to Islam, but not the other way.

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