A group of Muslim men, angered by plans to enlarge a Coptic church, battled with Christians after Friday prayers, setting fire to several buildings and injuring at least 11 people, officials and witnesses said.
Attackers roamed through the village of Bamha, about 15 miles south of Cairo, carrying hatchets and fuel canisters, said a witness, Tarek Gabbas.
Muslims and Christians reportedly threw firebombs and bricks at each other, and at least 10 Christian houses and businesses were set ablaze before police restored order. Seventeen people from both faiths were arrested, Reuters news agency reported.
Under Egyptian law, no church can be constructed without a presidential decree. However, mosques are not subject to the same regulation, a fact cited by Egypt’s Coptic minority as evidence of discrimination.
Christian Copts, who constitute about 10% of Egypt’s 80 million people, also complain that the state discriminates against them by denying them proper representation in the government.
Marcos Aziz, a prominent Coptic cleric, said religious tensions have been mounting in Egypt recently. The attack, he said, was “a result of the regime’s inability ... to solve the problems of the Copts.”
Muslim villagers in Bamha, angered by the plans for expansion of the church amid rumors that the Christians did not have building permits, had been circulating leaflets, calling on residents to “defend the religion of Muhammad” by burning down Christian property in the village, said Gabbas, a Muslim.
He said some Muslims ran into the burning buildings to try to help trapped Christians.
“Not all Muslims there were happy with what was happening. There were Muslims who risked their lives while trying to rescue Copts,” Gabbas said.
Five of the 11 wounded were women, said Abdullah Fawzi, director of the ambulance staff.
“It’s a recurring problem,” said Sameh Fawzi, an expert on Coptic affairs. “Most sectarian conflicts that erupted in the past were due to fights over the construction of churches.”
In April 2006, religious violence rocked the Mediterranean city of Alexandria after a knife-wielding assailant attacked three churches, killing a man and wounding at least 12 people. The police investigation concluded that the perpetrator was “mentally disturbed.”
Times staff writer Louise Roug in Beirut contributed to this report. Reuters news service was used in compiling it.