Egyptian Christians clash with police in Cairo, 23 killed

Protesters angry over attack on church throw rocks, petrol bombs at police and set fire to vehicles in Cairo; 150 injured; gov't urges calm.

coptic christian protest 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
coptic christian protest 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
CAIRO - Twenty-three people were killed in Cairo on Sunday when Christians, some carrying crosses and pictures of Jesus, clashed with military police, medical and security sources said, in the latest sectarian flare-up in a country in political turmoil.
Christians protesting against an attack on a church threw rocks and petrol bombs and set cars on fire, as thick smoke wafted through the streets in some of the most violent scenes since an uprising ousted ex-president Hosni Mubarak in February.
RELATED:Analysis: Egypt’s floundering revolution
Hundreds from both sides fought with sticks on a Cairo bridge. Protests later spread to the central Tahrir Square, the focal point of the February uprising. Witnesses said the army had moved into the area.
State television and sources said 150 people were injured, without saying how many of them were protesters. It had previously said three of those killed were soldiers.
Tensions between Christians and Muslims have increased since the February uprising. The latest violence comes just weeks before a parliamentary election on Nov. 28, the first such vote since Mubarak was ousted.
Egypt's government has appealed for calm. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said he had contacted security and church authorities to contain the situation.
"The only beneficiary of these events and acts of violence are the enemies of the January revolution and the enemies of the Egyptian people, both Muslim and Christian," he said on his Facebook page.
Christians, who make up 10 percent of Egypt's roughly 80 million people, took to the streets after blaming Muslim radicals for partially demolishing a church in Aswan province last week.
They also demanded the sacking of the province's governor for failing to protect the building.
More than four vehicles were set ablaze and TV footage showed protesters breaking windows of parked cars and army personnel carriers driving full speed towards crowds of protesters.
Gun shots were heard and witnesses said crowds of protesters carried bodies as tear gas filled the air. It was unclear who was shooting.
"We were marching peacefully," Talaat Youssef, 23-year old Christian trader told Reuters at the scene.
"When we got to the state television building, the army started firing live ammunition," he said, adding army vehicles ran over protesters, killing five. His account could not be immediately confirmed.
"The army is supposed to be protecting us," Youssef said.
Thousands of Christians protested in Cairo and Alexandria on Sunday over the attack, chanting against the ruling military council and its head, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
After the clashes in front of the state television building, protests in provinces with large Christian populations were reported by local newspapers. Their accounts could not be verified independently.
The protesters want the government to fire the governor of Aswan Province, Mostafa al-Sayed, after the partial demolition of the church on Friday. Egyptian media said Muslims were accused of attacking the church after talk spread in the town that the building did not have legal authorisation.
In May, twelve people were killed in a sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims after rumours that Christians were holding a woman who had converted to Islam.
The incident led the country's ruling military council to order the drafting of new laws to criminalise sectarian violence and ease restrictions on building churches.
Egyptian officials said they would investigate the causes of Sunday's violence, calling for calm.
"We need unity more than any other time before," Information Minister Osama Heikal told state television.