Egypt's Military Clashes With Coptic Christians

Coptic Christians in Egypt clashed with soldiers and anti-riot police during a protest in Cairo against the attack on a church in southern Egypt. It was the worst violence since the 18-day uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Violence in Cairo over the weekend reminds us that Egypt is mostly Muslim but not entirely so. Several million Egyptians are Coptic Christians. And it was members of that minority group who clashed with Egypt's military or the weekend. At least two dozen people are dead, hundreds wounded, the worst violence since Hosni Mubarak was driven from power in February.

We're going to talk about this with NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who's on the line from Cairo. Hi, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How did this happen?

NELSON: Well, it started as a peaceful protest yesterday afternoon. What was happening was that many Christians have started marching on the state television building along the Nile River. They were joining another group of protesters there, and the thing that they were demanding from the government is protection from these radical Muslim attacks that have been happening on churches and in Christian homes, especially in the southern part of the country.

And as they were walking, or as one group of protesters was going to meet the other, apparently some people in civilian clothes - it's unclear who they were - started pelting these groups with rocks and bottles, chased them with sticks, that sort of thing. So it started to grow violent. And then by the time the protesters got to the state television building, the police and the soldiers became involved - particularly the soldiers. And so people were reporting gunfire erupting and that the military was running over protesters with armored vehicles.

And at some stage apparently some of the protesters grabbed guns from the soldiers and were shooting back. So this became very violent very quickly.

INSKEEP: I suppose one of the challenges here is to figure out who really were on the contending sides. Is this a Christian/Muslim clash? Is it protesters against security forces? What was this really?

NELSON: Well, certainly the violence became more a matter of Christians versus the security forces. There were some Muslims who had actually joined in with the Christians, sort of in solidarity as they started calling for the downfall of the military leadership at the moment - the military rulers of this country, particularly Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who is the top military ruler. He was the former defense minister under Mubarak, and he's in effect the top ruler of this country at the moment.

And so there were actually Muslims joining with the Christians. But there were also some Muslims going after the Christians, so it was a mix. And certainly there was a very sectarian flavor to it. And what prompted the protest was obviously sectarian violence.

INSKEEP: What is the government saying about all this, Soraya?

NELSON: Well, the government is scrambling to try and repair its image. They really are trying to paint this as something that isn't their fault. The prime minister, Essam Sharaf, got on TV several times last night to say that in fact it was people trying to bring the government down that were responsible for this. For the longest time state television wasn't even reporting on the casualty figures among protesters. And the military rulers say that they are investigating what happened, but at the moment they're very much trying to push this all off on the protesters.

INSKEEP: Soraya, I want to circle back to the original complaint of the protesters. You referred to attacks on churches and so forth in southern Egypt. How severe and how sustained have these attacks been since Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February?

NELSON: Well, certainly the Coptic Christians say that they are very severe and that they have been increasing. But when you talk to Muslim activists, even human rights activists who back them, they're uncomfortable with this. They don't want this to be portrayed as a country that's sort of sinking into sectarian violence, if you will. So there's a disconnect.

But there's no doubt that Muslims here and Christians here, that there's a lot of tension between the two groups and that the more radical elements among the Muslims that were never really seen as much in the open during Mubarak's time are now feeling quite free to come out and protest. They want an Islamic state. They don't want Christians around.

And it's important to note that the Coptic minority is a very large one here. One in 10 Egyptians is in fact a Coptic Christian, so this is a very tense situation.

INSKEEP: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Cairo. Soraya, thanks as always.

NELSON: You're welcome, Steve.

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