Egypt was on edge yesterday after a night of violence outside Cairo’s Coptic cathedral following the death of seven people in clashes between Christians and Muslims, with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi promising an immediate investigation.
Calm was restored to the central neighborhood of Abbassiya where police deployed in force outside St Mark’s cathedral, and where several Copts were still gathered yesterday morning.
The death toll from the clashes outside the cathedral rose to two, according to an updated health ministry toll issued yesterday.
A day earlier, mourners had packed the cathedral for prayers to honor four Copts who had been killed in sectarian clashes in a town north of the Egyptian capital that also left one Muslim dead.
As the mourners left the cathedral, they came under attack from a crowd who pelted them with stones, sparking violence that killed another Christian, 30-year-old Mahrus Hanna Ibrahim Tadros.
The second person who died has not yet been identified.
Amid scenes of chaos, mourners rushed back into St Mark’s to seek refuge as black-clad riot police began firing tear gas at the cathedral. At least 89 people were wounded in the violence, the Egyptian Ministry of Health said.
Fresh fighting also erupted on Sunday between Christians and Muslims in al-Khusus, the town north of Cairo where the trouble had started on Friday.
The bloodshed underscores simmering hostility that has seen regular violence between Morsi’s main Islamist allies and a broad opposition. It also highlights sectarian tensions that have been brewing for years.
During the funeral prayers, mourners holding up wooden crosses chanted against the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi emerged, even as the bishops conducting the service called for peace and calm.
Morsi, in a call to Coptic Pope Tawadros II, condemned the violence.
He ordered “an immediate investigation” into the clashes and condemned the violence at the cathedral as “an attack on myself,” the official MENA news agency reported.
He also affirmed “the protection of all citizens, Muslims and Christians, is the responsibility of the state.”
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherin Ashton, who met with Morsi in Cairo on Sunday, said she contacted the presidency and called for restraint.
Hani Sobhi, a young Copt, explained live television coverage of the funeral had sparked the violence.
“Inside the cathedral we chanted ‘Down with the Brotherhood rule’ and that was aired live on television. At the exit [of the cathedral], the people were ready and waiting for us,” he said.
The Egyptian Ministry of the Interior said “a number of mourners began to damage cars in the area which led to confrontations with residents of the area.”
Loud blasts were heard as rows of Abbassiya residents hurled rocks and bottles at the cathedral and were met in kind from Copts inside the complex.
Sunday’s service was being held for the four Christians killed in the sectarian clashes two days earlier.
The violence in Al-Khusus, a poor area in Qalyubia province, flared on Friday after a Muslim in his 50s objected to children drawing a swastika on a religious institute.