Egyptian church mourns riot deaths, blames 'infiltrators' for violence
By Benjamin Mann
Courtesy Osama F. G. Henein
Courtesy Osama F. G. Henein

.- Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church has declared three days of fasting and mourning after a demonstration turned violent and led to at least 24 deaths. The church says anti-Christian infiltrators are responsible.

“The Christian faith denounces violence,” the church said in an Oct. 10 statement issued one day after a demonstration for Christian rights gave way to violence between civilians and the army, leaving 272 injured. “Strangers infiltrated the demonstration and committed the crimes for which Copts are being blamed.”

In its official response, the Coptic Orthodox Church urged authorities to “solve the root causes of the problems” between Christians, Muslims, and police. The church noted that Egypt's Christian minority has “suffered repeated problems while the aggressors have gone unpunished.”

Sunday's demonstration drew an estimated 10,000 Christians to Cairo for what was meant to be a peaceful protest against a recent church burning in the southern city of Aswan. Coptic Christians, who make up a tenth of Egypt's population, marched to demand more protection and rights from the transitional military government.

By Sunday night, however, Cairo was the scene of the worst violence since former president Hosni Mubarak left office. Video footage posted online showed army vehicles running over protesters, while witnesses accused riot police of firing into the crowds and working alongside anti-Christian mobs that were shouting Islamist slogans.

Meanwhile, participants in the demonstration were accused of throwing rocks and bottles at police. Protesters, who say they were unarmed, allegedly managed to seize weapons from some members of the army, who eventually used tear gas to disperse them.

Mary Nour, a Coptic protester who spoke to Egypt's Ahram Online, said the army “is treating us the way Mubarak treated protesters during the revolution.” Protesters on Sunday voiced outrage against Field Marshall Mohamed Tantawi, head of the interim military council that replaced the ousted president, as they substituted his name into chants used in the original anti-Mubarak protests.

Sarah Carr, a Cairo-based blogger and journalist, provided a “firsthand account” to the Egyptian publication Al-Masry Al-Youm, saying she saw “two armored personnel carriers … driving at frightening speed through protesters, who threw themselves out of its path. A soldier on top of each vehicle manned a gun, and spun it wildly, apparently shooting at random.”

In a nearby Coptic hospital, Carr said she found the floors “sticky with blood … there was barely room to move among the wounded.” The Coptic Orthodox Church says Christians account for at least 17 of the 24 people confirmed dead.

The army has so far declined to say what proportion of the hundreds wounded were civilians, though it has called for a fact-finding committee to look into Sunday's violence. Interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said the events were “not clashes between Muslims and Christians but attempts to provoke chaos.”

A White House statement urged “restraint on all sides” for the sake of forging  “a strong and united Egypt.” The U.S. government said Coptic rights “must be respected,” especially the “universal rights of peaceful protest and religious freedom.”

But Father Rafic Greiche, a spokesman for Eastern Catholics in Egypt, warned that life was getting worse for Egypt's Christian minority.

He told Vatican Radio on Oct. 10 that the government was “not controlling” anti-Christian elements –  a change for the worse from the era of Mubarak, who was known for restricting Christian activities but also sought to keep radical Muslim groups down.

“At the time of the old regime of Mubarak, there were also churches being burned … and it was the security who always used to take care of us,” said Fr. Greiche.

Now, the priest said, “even the government goes not give a damn about what is happening” to Copts in Aswan and elsewhere.

“First, the government in Aswan has to leave,” Fr. Greiche responded when asked what Christian
protesters expected from the state.

He also said a proposed law to liberalize building rights for Christians and other groups “has to be implemented. It was promised from this government four months ago, and it was not done.”

The Catholic spokesman says Christians also want a law to stop the religious discrimination they face in many areas of life. “We ask that this law be implemented for at least ten years, until the society gets used not to discriminating (against) one another,” he stated.

In an interview with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Fr. Greiche accused Aswan's governor of complicity with Islamic radicals, saying the official “gave the green light for the fundamentalists to burn the church.”

He accused the army of abusing its power to dispel Sunday's demonstration, saying state security forces “used vagabonds, a rabble force of street fighters,” to attack what had been a “peaceful demonstration.”

Fr. Greiche also warned that the Islamic extremists Mubarak once held back had “developed a very loud voice,” while the new interim government “leaves them to do whatever they want.”

Their ultimate goal, the priest said, was to enact Islamic law throughout Egypt and force Christians to flee the country.

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