Cairo: Tens of thousands of protesters massed in a southern Egyptian city on Friday and cut off a major rail link to demand the exit of a Christian governor as the government sought to resolve the crisis, police officials said.
The protests began last Friday after Emad Mikhail, a former Cairo police commander, was appointed governor of Qena, the second Coptic Christian governor in a row.
The protesters` motivations appear to vary, but the presence of hardline Islamists has raised sectarian tensions in the province, which has a large Christian population and a history of religious strife.
Police officials said the protesters gathered outside the governor`s headquarters and reinforced demonstrators already camped out on a railway track after Friday prayer sermons in mosques urged them to end the sit-in.
But a cleric who preached to protesters outside the governor`s headquarters encouraged them to continue pressing for the ouster of the governor.
"The people of Qena`s demand is legitimate. We are only demanding one of our rights, to have a Muslim governor to administer our affairs," the official MENA news agency quoted Mustapha Mahmud, identified as an employee with the religious endowments ministry, as saying.
"The objection isn`t because of (Mikhail`s) religion," he insisted.
State television aired interviews with protesters who denied they were Islamists, but a Coptic bishop in the province said the demonstrators have been heard chanting anti-Christian slogans.
"The protests are sectarian," Bishop Kirilos of the nearby town of Nagaa Hammadi said.
"They are led by Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood, and they are chanting: `We won`t leave until the Christians leave`," he said.
The bishop, who was present when Muslim gunmen killed six churchgoers after an evening mass in January 2010, said parishioners were fearful of further attacks.
A prominent Salafi cleric in Cairo, Abdel Moneim al-Shahat, denied that his sect, which advocates a return to early Muslim practices, was spearheading the protests.
"People object to him because he has a security background, and also because he was appointed as though for a Coptic quota, and Qena always gets the quota Christian," he said of Mikhail`s appointment.
"My religion forbids me from being ruled by a Christian, but if he were popular I would be willing to set aside my religious objection," he said.
Many traditional Muslim scholars believe a Christian or a woman may not rule a Muslim country.
Copts make up about 10 percent of Egypt`s 80 million people and have been the targets of attacks.
The Qena protests have served as a stark reminder to the persistence of sectarian tensions after a popular revolt ousted president Hosni Mubarak in February.
Telecoms billionaire Nagib Sawaris, one of Egypt`s most successful Copts, said the minority has been left feeling "uncomfortable" after an apparent resurgence in sectarian violence that led to the Qena protests.
In March, a Coptic church was torched in a village south of Cairo. A few days later, at least 13 people were killed when Muslims clashed with Copts in Cairo who were protesting against the attack.
"Personally, I believe that the main reason (behind the Qena protests) is that he is Christian and there is a group of fanatic people who do not represent Egyptians," said Sawaris, who has started a liberal party.
The government has unsuccessfully tried to persuade the demonstrators to disperse by sending two prominent Salafi clerics to negotiate with them along with the interior minister.
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf was preparing to head a delegation to the southern city to defuse the crisis.
MENA quoted one of his advisers, Ahmed Omran, as pleading with the protesters to end their sit-in on the rail tracks while calling their demand "legitimate”.
"Your message has reached us clearly and in full, and there is a consensus among all sectors on rejecting (Mikhail`s) appointment," he said.
His speech may have been aimed at easing tensions ahead of the visit by Sharaf, who wrote on his Twitter account that "I hope my people in Qena would receive me as a guest so we can dialogue and arrive to a solution that pleases them."