Stabbings spark sectarian storm in Alexandria

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The Independent Online

Nushi Atta Girgis, 78, was killed during knife attacks on three Coptic churches on Friday that left another 15 people wounded. Egyptian authorities have blamed the attack on a madman, but Copts have accused the government of making excuses for an increase in attacks on them by Muslim extremists.

Two days of violence culminated in large-scale clashes yesterday as police tried to set up a security cordon around the Saints Church in the city centre. Witnesses said they saw groups of young Christians waving machetes and long knives as they faced police lines near the church. Some carried crosses made of wooden poles lashed together.

Police reportedly responded with live rounds and tear gas. A mob of Muslims then attacked the police and the Copts from the other direction but later dispersed, while a third group campaigning for communal peace paraded in the same area. Other demonstrators tossed Molotov cocktails from nearby balconies.

Police could be seen beating a boy of about 12, who was separated from the crowd of Coptic youths who fled into the church, slamming the doors behind them, or dashed down the narrow streets surrounding it.

On Saturday, police arrested what they said was a "deranged man" who is alleged to have carried out the three knife attacks. However, the Coptic community and a number of rights' groups have cast doubt on the authorities' explanation and claimed that the attack was a premeditated act by Muslim extremists. A judge has remanded the suspect, Mahmoud Salah-Eddin Abdel-Raziq, 25, in custody. Interior ministry sources say he wanted revenge on Christians after the Danish cartoons row.

Police said that 43 people had been wounded in clashes near the church and 50 others had been arrested.

About 2,000 riot police had cordoned off the front of the Saints Church, but were unable to prevent the late-afternoon melee by some 200 young men.

A Muslim man died early in the day from wounds received in the violence, a hospital source said. Mustafa Said Meshal, in his forties, had been clubbed on the head.

Police said Alexandria's Governor, Mohammad Abdel Salam Mahgoub, other politicians and members of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood were trying calm the situation.

Coptic Christians account for one-tenth of Egypt's 73 million people and generally live in peace with the Muslim majority. But occasional sectarian clashes have broken out. Four people were killed recently in week-long riots sparked by Muslim militants who attacked churches in Alexandria in protest against the distribution of a DVD that they deemed offensive to Islam.

Who are the Copts?

* Nearly all of Egypt's 10 million Christians are Copts - Christians descended from ancient Egyptians. The word "Copt" is derived from the Greek word Aigyptos, which means Egyptian. Headed by Pope Shenouda III since 1971, their Church split from the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in AD451 after a dispute about the nature of Christ. Copts remain doctrinally similar to their counterparts in the Eastern Orthodox Church but in some services use their own language, derived from ancient Egyptian but written mainly in the Greek alphabet. The Coptic Church also runs on its own calendar, said to be the world's oldest. Originating 3,000 years before Christ, it starts on 11 September and includes a 13th month of five or six days. According to the Coptic calendar, Easter falls next weekend and Christmas on 7 January, which is an official national holiday in Egypt.