CAIRO - The death toll from a sectarian clash over the alleged conversion of an
Egyptian Christian woman to Islam rose to 12 on Sunday as the country's
prime minister called an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the
Witnesses said around 500 conservative Islamists known
as Salafists massed outside the Saint Mina Church in the Cairo suburb of
Imbaba on Saturday demanding that Christians hand over a woman they
said had converted to Islam.
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Following the emergency meeting, Egypt's government announced that it will step up security at religious sites and toughen laws that criminalize attacks on houses of worship.
Justice Minister Mohamed el-Guindy said the cabinet decided to activate
laws dealing with terrorism, give police the resources they need to
prevent inter-faith clashes and ensure those who vandalize houses of
worship are severely punished.
Tensions flared, gunfire broke out and the two sides threw firebombs and
stones. Soldiers and police rushed to the church, fired shots in the
air and used tear gas to separate them, the witnesses said.
A Reuters witness said later that another church in the same area was on fire and had been severely damaged.
media gave the new death toll and revised the number of injured to 186,
with two in a critical condition in hospital. At least five were
reported dead late on Saturday and 75 injured.
One of the new corpses was found inside the church, official news agency MENA reported.
was some of Egypt's worst sectarian violence since January and offers a
new test for the generals who took power after the overthrow of Hosni
Mubarak in a popular uprising.
Police who deserted the streets
during the uprising have returned to their jobs, but many Egyptians say
they feel less safe on the streets.
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf
canceled a tour of Gulf states to call an emergency cabinet meeting on
Sunday morning to discuss the violence, MENA said.
Sectarian strife often flares in Egypt over conversions, family disputes
and the construction of churches. Muslims and Christians made
demonstrations of unity during the protests that overthrew Mubarak, but
interfaith tensions have grown.
Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million population.