Demonstrator killed as Egypt Christians clash with police

The clashes erupted over denial of permission to open a new church.

Cairo: A teenage demonstrator was killed and dozens injured on Wednesday as Coptic Christian protesters clashed with Egyptian police over denial of permission to open a new church, a security official said.

A security official said a young male demonstrator was killed during the protests and that a senior police officer was among the injured. He was later identified as Makarios Gad Shukr, 19.

Violent confrontations between Muslims and Copts break out sporadically in the Arab world`s most populous country, sometimes over the construction of churches, but clashes between police and Christians are rare.

Hundreds of Copts hurled stones and firebombs at police throughout the morning in several locations in the Talibiya district of Cairo`s Giza governorate.

Police fired tear gas at the protesters and threw rocks. The demonstrators were protesting against the governorate`s refusal to allow them to turn a community centre into a church.

Prosecutor Abdel Magid Mahmud said in a statement that seven officers and 11 policemen were wounded in the violence. He said 133 protesters were arrested.

A Health Ministry official said 48 protesters were taken to hospital.

Some of the protesters were led away with blood on their faces, after police threw rocks at them from a bridge down the road from the contested church, witnesses said.

They said dozens of Muslim residents of Talibiya chanted anti-Coptic slogans and also threw rocks at the demonstrators from under a bridge on the ring road as police fired tear gas at the Copts.

The Coptic protesters chanted back: "Long live the crescent alongside the crucifix," in reference to the Islamic and Christian symbols.

Riot police were later deployed to hold back the Muslims.

Father Mina, from a church near the proposed new chapel, said Shukr was shot in the neck during one of the demonstrations in front of the governorate headquarters in the morning.

Hundreds of Copts gathered at the neighbouring church to complain about how they had been treated.

"People here feel very discriminated against. We can`t build the church. Why are they stopping us?" asked Samih Rashid.

In his weekly address, the head of the Coptic Church Pope Shenouda III denounced the use of force against the protesters.

"God gives authority to some people so they can give comfort to those under their rule, but authority should not be violently exercised," he said.

Al-Azhar, Islam`s oldest seat of learning, said it was "dismayed" by the violence and called on authorities to resolve the dispute.

The authorities said the Copts had violated their building licence, which was for a community centre only.

Copts are required to obtain a presidential decree to construct new religious buildings and must satisfy numerous conditions before permission is granted. The decision is often delegated to governors.

In a press conference after the protests ended, Giza Governor Sayed Abdel Aziz said he had agreed with Christian leaders before the clashes that construction of the church could go ahead if they submitted a new application.

Each side blamed the other for starting the violence at dawn.

Copts account for between six and 10 percent of Egypt`s 80 million population and complain of systematic discrimination and marginalisation.

The clashes took place just ahead of a Parliamentary Election on Sunday, which is expected to keep the ruling National Democratic Party in power.

Sectarian tensions have been rising amid threats by an al Qaeda group in Iraq against Egypt`s Copts.

The group threatened to target Christians around the world if the Coptic church did not release two women rumoured to be held against their will after converting to Islam, which the church denies.

In January, six Copts were killed by gunmen in southern Egypt as they emerged from mass on the eve of Coptic Christmas in the deadliest attack on the community since 2000.

Bureau Report