Egypt to toughen security after 12 die in church clashes

Shots fired, firebombs thrown as Salafists surround Saint Mina Church in Cairo demanding the release of Christian woman who converted to Islam.

Egypt church soldier 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egypt church soldier 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 violence.
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.
State 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.
It 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.