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Sectarian violence in Cairo has Egypt on edge

Egyptian military rulers are promising swift justice for participants in sectarian riots in Imbaba neighborhood of Cairo that left 12 people dead.

By Correspondent / May 8, 2011

Egyptians gather next to a building belongs to Christians set on fire during clashes between Muslims and Christians in the Imbaba neighborhood of Cairo Sunday. Two churches in western Cairo were set on fire during clashes between Muslims and Christians triggered by rumors of an interfaith romance that left nine dead in some of the worst sectarian tension since the ouster of the president in a popular uprising.

Khalil Hamra/AP

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Cairo

An attack by Muslims on two churches in Cairo led to sectarian clashes that claimed at least 12 lives, a reminder that Egypt's religious rift has continued to widen since the successful uprising that pushed Hosni Mubarak from power.

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The violence in the Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba, declared in the 1990's to be "liberated" from the Egyptian state by Islamist militants, also highlights the growing role the salafis, a small and strident Muslim sect, are playing in exacerbating sectarian tensions. The salafi strain of Islam, which feeds most militant Sunni movements, was publicly repressed under Mubarak and has been taking advantage of the more open environment since his downfall.

“There is no security in Egypt,” says Rober, a 23-year member of the Virgin Mary church, which was largely reduced to a smoldering hulk after it was set alight Saturday night. He stood in a burned-out stairway and watched as a woman walked past, weeping. “This is only the beginning. I’m afraid for my sister, for my mother, from the salafis.”

On Sunday, stories of what happened Saturday night varied wildly in Imbaba's maze of dirt alleyways. The sprawling neighborhood on the west side of the Nile is poor and mostly Muslim, but has large pockets of Coptic Christians, who account for as much as 10 percent of Egypt's population. The sectarian violence also left 200 injured and saw police and army forces move into the area and impose a curfew. They blocked access to the St. Mina church, where the violence began.

Christian witnesses say St. Mina was attacked by a group of armed salafis carrying Ak-47s and throwing Molotov cocktails on Saturday. The witnesses say the attackers accused the church of abducting a woman who had converted from Christianity to Islam, and also destroyed a nearby Christian apartment building and a Christian-owned shop before setting the Virgin Mary church on fire.

Accounts

Muslims in the area say that the Christians were armed and attacked first. An Egyptian Army officer standing guard Sunday said that when he arrived Saturday, there were no salafis but two groups of men were fighting each other, and that weapons were fired from within the church. The clashes ran from about 8:30 on Saturday night until early the next morning local time.

Father Mattias Elias, priest of the Virgin Mary church for more than 30 years, says “salafi terrorists” set the church on fire. "We have faith and hope (that) God will change what is happening. But practically, we need leadership from the Army, the security forces,” he says, sitting in a burned-out former sanctuary, next to the gutted baptismal room where the fire killed a church employee.

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