Middle East

Egypt warns of 'iron fist' response after clashes

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Media captionThe al-Azraa church went up in flames during the clashes

Egypt's justice minister has warned that those who threaten the country's security will face "an iron fist".

Abdel Aziz al-Gindi was speaking after 12 people died and more than 180 were wounded during clashes between Muslims and Christians in Cairo.

More than 190 people detained after the fatal clashes will face military trials, Egypt's army says.

The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces called the move a "deterrent" against further violence.

"The government's hand is not shaking. The government is not weak," Mr Gindi said, speaking after an emergency cabinet meeting convened by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf.

Mr Sharaf postponed a visit to the Gulf to hold the meeting.

Mr Gindi said the government would "immediately and firmly implement the laws that criminalise attacks against places of worship and freedom of belief", which would allow for the death penalty to be applied.

He said the Egyptian people, police and army were "standing together to foil the counter-revolution", following the popular protests that unseated the government in February.

Fire bombs

Saturday's violence started after several hundred conservative Salafist Muslims gathered outside the Coptic Saint Mena Church in Cairo's Imbaba district.

They were reportedly protesting over the allegation that a Christian woman, named as Abeer, was being held there against her will because she had married a Muslim man and converted to Islam.

The calls for this protest followed the appearance on a Christian TV channel of Camelia Shehata, a woman who Islamists had claimed was also being held against her will after converting to Islam. She denied this in the TV interview.

Witnesses said the confrontation began with shouting between protesters, church guards and people living near the church.

Rival groups threw fire bombs and stones, and gunfire was heard.

The church and one other, as well as some nearby homes, were set alight, and it took hours for the emergency services and the military to bring the situation under control.

On its Facebook page, the Egyptian army announced: "The Supreme Military Council decided to send all those who were arrested in yesterday's events, that is 190 people, to the Supreme Military Court."

It added that it should act as a "deterrent to all those who think of toying with the potential of this nation".

Image caption At least one church was damaged by fire during the protests

The statement also said that a committee would be set up to assess the damage caused by the clashes and "restore all property and places of worship to how they were".

The army warned of "severe dangers facing Egypt during this phase".

Saturday's clashes were not the first outbreak of communal violence since President Hosni Mubarak left office in February following weeks of popular protests.

During the protests in Cairo, many Christians and Muslims had protested alongside each other and protected each other during prayer times.

But in March, 13 people died in sectarian clashes in another neighbourhood. Last month, demonstrators in the southern city of Qena cut all transport links with Cairo for a week in protest over the appointment of a Christian governor.

The clashes - coming as the military government leads a faltering transition to democracy - are a worrying development for Egypt, the BBC's Jonathan Head in Cairo says.

Salafist groups - who have made similar claims about women being held against their will before - have become more assertive in the post-Mubarak era, he adds.

Coptic Christians account for about 10% of Egypt's population, and have long complained of state discrimination against them.

Now they are expressing fears for their safety if hardline Muslims do well in the election scheduled for September, our correspondent reports.

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