At least 22 people were killed in clashes between military police and Coptic Christian protesters in the latest eruption of violence highlighting Egypt's deepening sectarian divisions since President Hosni Mubarak was driven from power in February.
In the bloodiest unrest since last winter's uprising, authorities said, three soldiers and 19 protesters were killed Sunday when Copts threw Molotov cocktails at riot police outside the state Radio and Television Building in downtown Cairo. The chaos was further inflamed when thugs in plainclothes attacked Copts, some carrying crucifixes, as they marched along the Nile at dusk.
The violence escalated quickly and jolted what had begun as a peaceful rally by Christians to protest the recent burning by Muslims of a church in southern Egypt. Copts began hurling bottles and rocks at security forces after military vehicles plowed through demonstrators as gunshots echoed overhead and crowds scattered.
"Protesters fired bird shot at the military police," said a policeman at the scene who would not give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "The police didn't interfere until protesters shot dead one of our officers and set ablaze a number of military vehicles and threw stones at the TV building."
But Peter Magdy, a Coptic protester, said: "We wanted to have a sit-in to demand the end of oppression against Christians. But the military police told us to leave after 10 minutes and then people from nearby neighborhoods came and attacked us with stones and sticks.... Military vehicles ran over many demonstrators and I ran to save myself."
Tear gas and flames rose along the Nile as riots spread into Tahrir Square and young men appeared in the streets to support the army by chasing Copts. Both sides plucked cobblestones from the roads to use as weapons. Television footage showed a priest shielding a soldier being beaten by Copts. More than 150 people were injured.
The unrest revealed the intensifying mistrust between Christians and Muslims at a time when the country's ruling military council has not protected Coptic churches and other institutions from attacks by radical Islamists. Extremist voices have grown louder as Salafis and other ultraconservative Islamists have enjoyed broader freedoms since the fall of Mubarak's police state.
In May, 12 people were killed when Muslims attacked two churches in Cairo's impoverished Imbaba neighborhood. In March, Muslims burned down a church in Helwan, south of Cairo. Those attacks and the ensuing political turmoil have prompted thousands of Copts, who make up 10% of Egypt's population of more than 80 million, to leave the country in recent months.
Their departures mark a disturbing prospect and underline the darker side of the "Arab Spring" uprisings. The unity among Egyptians that brought down the former regime has been splintering for months. The country is struggling with economic problems and bracing for parliamentary elections in November, which are likely to further harden religious and political divisions.
Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf contacted religious leaders and security officials Sunday night to calm the situation. The violence flared shortly after thousands of Copts and some Muslim supporters marched from an outlying neighborhood to join a sit-in at the Radio and Television Building. The bloodshed was at least partly instigated by thugs, who often appear at protests and sit-ins to intimidate antigovernment demonstrators.
"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.
But Copts have accused the ruling military council and its interim government of not cracking down on extremist elements. Copts have been protesting for months for improved security; many of them say they were better protected under Mubarak than current military leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
"The people want to topple the field marshal!" the protesters yelled Sunday as the clashes broke out. They also chanted "No to the burning of churches" and "Raise your head high. You are a Copt."
Churches and monasteries have often turned into battlegrounds, especially if a bell tower or a cupola's cross rises too close to a mosque. Egypt has often prided itself on the relatively peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Christians, but Copts say they fear that generations of subtle discrimination are evolving into more pointed dangers.
Nabil Gabriel, a Coptic lawyer, told the news outlet Ahram Online: "You can call it whatever you like.... But the point is we want equality in this country."
There were also scenes of solidarity in downtown Cairo as hundreds of Muslims stood with Copts amid broken glass and rows of riot police. By late Sunday night, though, most Copts had disappeared from the TV building and Tahrir Square, where about 150 Muslim men chanted: "With our souls and blood we protect Islam."
Hassan is a news assistant in The Times' Cairo bureau.