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At least nine dead following religious clashes outside Egyptian church

Saturday night’s clashes were sparked by rumors in the low-income neighborhood of Imbaba that a Christian woman married to a Muslim had been abducted and was being held in the church against her will. The clashes also left 144 people injured.

Firemen fight a fire at a church surrounded by angry Muslims in the Imbaba neighborhood in Cairo
Firemen fight a fire at a church surrounded by angry Muslims in the Imbaba neighborhood in Cairo
Image: AP Photo

MOBS SET TWO churches on fire in western Cairo in clashes between Muslims and Christians triggered by rumors of an interfaith romance that left nine dead in some of the worst sectarian violence since the ouster of the president in a popular uprising.

Egypt’s prime minister canceled his visit to the Gulf on Sunday and called for an emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss the violence.

Saturday night’s clashes were sparked by rumors in the low-income neighborhood of Imbaba that a Christian woman married to a Muslim had been abducted and was being held in the church against her will.

The report, which was never confirmed, spurred a mob from the ultraconservative Salafi trend of Islam to march on the church. Christians barricaded themselves inside and around the church and clashes ensued.

Gunfire sounded across the neighborhood, and witnesses said people on rooftops were firing into the crowd.

Muslims accused Christians of starting the shooting, and large crowds instigated by the local Salafi religious leaders converged on the area, lobbing fire bombs at homes, shops and the church, setting its facade on fire.

The crowd later attacked another nearby church and set it on fire, as well. The army and police tried to break up the crowd with tear gas, but failed to clear the streets for hours.

Residents stormed a six-story building near the church, also setting it on fire, claiming the Christians used it to shoot at Muslims.

On Sunday morning, flames were still shooting out of windows, and furniture was strewn along the sidewalks.

The fires in the churches were eventually extinguished and the buildings were surrounded by the army. Residents say Christians were hiding inside. The attackers chanted:

With our blood and soul, we defend you Islam.

Egypt’s state news agency said six Muslims and three Christians were killed. The body of one Christian was found inside the church.

State TV said a total of 144 were injured in the violence that spread throughout the neighborhood.

Interfaith relationships are taboo in Egypt, where the Muslim majority and sizable Christian minority are both largely conservative. Such relationships are often the source of deadly clashes between the faiths.

If a Christian woman marries a Muslim, she is expelled from the church. A Muslim woman is not allowed to marry a Christian man, according to state law.

Because divorce is banned under the Coptic Church, with rare exceptions, some Christian women resort to conversion to Islam or another Christian denomination to get out of a marriage.

Ultraconservative Salafi Muslims have been protesting for almost a year over the alleged church abduction of a priest’s wife because, they claim, she converted to Islam to escape an unhappy marriage.

Salafis have used the case of Camilla Shehata as a rallying point for their supporters and they accuse the police of collaborating with the church to reconvert her.

On Saturday just before the violence in Imbaba, Shehata appeared on a Christian TV station broadcast from outside of Egypt sitting with her husband and child and asserting that she was still a Christian and had never converted:

Let the protesters leave the Church alone and turn their attention to Egypt’s future

Since the fall of Egypt’s authoritarian government in a popular uprising, the once quiescent Salafis have become more assertive in trying to spread their ultraconservative version of an Islamic way of life.

Their protests have inflamed the already delicate state of religious relations in Egypt.

The Coptic Christian minority makes up 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people and complains of widespread discrimination that they say relegates them to second-class citizen status.

- AP

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Hugh O'Connell

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