Egyptian media on Monday accused “anti-revolutionaries” of trying to trigger sectarian conflict, as a top cleric warned the country could be engulfed in civil war.
The US condemned the “senseless sectarian” violence in Egypt, while the EU urged Egyptian authorities to put on trial those responsible for the bloodshed.
The government has vowed to use an “iron fist” to ensure national security after Saturday’s deadly clashes in Cairo, branded by Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed -ElBaradei as “religious extremism of the Middle Ages.”
“We are facing the anti-revolutionary groups who are convinced that any success of the revolution was an even greater threat to their interests and so are trying to fuel confessional conflict,” the flagship al-Ahram newspaper wrote.
Fierce clashes broke out between Christians and Muslims in northwest Cairo’s working-class district of Imbaba where 12 people were killed, scores injured and a church set ablaze. Six Muslims and four Christians were among the dead, while two bodies were still unidentified.
The two groups clashed after Muslims attacked the Coptic church of Saint Mena in Imbaba to free a Christian woman they alleged was being held against her will because she wanted to convert to Islam.
Egypt has been gripped by insecurity and sectarian unrest since the ouster of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
The military council governing Egypt said that the latest flare-ups in the country represent a “counter-revolution” by old regime diehards aimed at sowing chaos.
Ali Gomaa, Egypt’s grand mufti and chief interpreter of Islamic law, was quoted in the main independent daily al-Masri al-Yom as warning of the potential for civil war, “because of outlaws who want to defy the authority of the state.”
Meanwhile, Egyptian Interior Minister Mansur al-Issawi denied reports that weapons had been stored in Saint Mena church.
“Contrary to rumors that there were weapons inside the church, it was the owner of a cafe near the church who fired a gun,” he told the government daily al-Akhbar.
Security officials said police arrested the Muslim husband of the alleged convert, saying he had spread the word that his wife was being detained in a building next to the church.
The Salafists, a puritanical Islamist sect accused of being behind the Imbaba clashes, denied they had any role in the violence.
Prominent Salafi cleric in Cairo, Abdel Moneim al-Shahat, said the Imbaba clash “does not reflect the Salafist thought, which prohibits the incitement of confessional conflict.”
Saturday’s violence also angered ElBaradei, a prominent figure in the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak, who called on Twitter for swift action against such “religious extremism and practices of the Middle Ages.”
The Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution, an umbrella movement for the groups that launched the revolt against Mubarak, said “the regrettable events at Imbaba are evidence of a catastrophic security failure” in Egypt and criticized the military authorities for not having reacted in the absence of the police.
Meanwhile, 1,000 Copts continued their sit-in in front of the headquarters of the state television network on Monday in protest at what they called the authorities’ “laxity” toward the attacks on Christians.
They briefly scuffled with soldiers outside the building after surrounding two Muslim men they said were armed with knives. The soldiers used tasers in the scuffle, witnesses said.