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Why did Egypt's Army violently suppress Christian protesters? (VIDEO)

Egypt's Army fired Sunday on thousands of Christian protesters demonstrating against a recent church burning, leaving at least 24 people dead. Some say the Army is provoking sectarian violence as a pretext for staying in power.

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Along with official incitement, there was cooperation between the Army and the angry mobs attacking Christians, according to some witnesses. Hani Bushra was attacked in downtown Cairo, near a running battle between protesters and the Army, by a man who demanded to know what he was doing.

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“He grabbed my wrists to see if I had a cross tattoo,” as many Coptic Christians do, says Mr. Bushra. When he didn’t find one, he asked for Bushra’s name, which is not obviously Muslim or Christian. “Then he asked my religion, and when I said Christian, he yelled ‘I’ve got a Christian and he has weapons,’ ” says Bushra.

After the crowd started to beat him, Bushra headed to a police officer for protection. As he waited with police, he watched members of the Army rally a crowd of men who did not appear to be with the police or the Army for a charge on protesters.

At another point, the Army welcomed a crowd shouting “Where are you Christians? Islam is here,” he said. Bushra says none of the civilian men appeared outwardly to be from the salafi strain of Islamic extremists, who have sometimes clashed with Christians, or to be paid thugs, sometimes used by the Interior Ministry. “There was just this desire to protect the country from the Christians who [they were being told] are bearing arms and shooting people randomly,” he says.

Government blames 'outside forces'

In a televised speech, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf blamed the violence on outside forces, a common scapegoat for the military rulers. He also called for an investigation.

“These events have taken us back several steps," he said. "Instead of moving forward to build a modern state on democratic principles we are back to seeking stability and searching for hidden hands – domestic and foreign – that meddle with the country's security and safety."

In a statement, the US embassy did not place blame on the Egyptian Army, which the US gives about $1 billion in aid each year.

“We are deeply concerned by the violence between demonstrators and security forces in Cairo Oct. 9, which resulted in a number of deaths among both sides," the statement said. "We note Prime Minister Sharaf's call for an investigation, and appeal to all parties to remain calm.”

Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says an independent, impartial, and immediate investigation is the most pressing priority right now.

“Anything short of this will perpetuate the impression that the Army is siding with extremists and is biased against Christians,” he says. “But judging from how the Army dealt with reports of abuses from its own officers since February, we are not optimistic that the Army will actually establish accountability for what happened.”

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