Clashes between Copt Christians and Egyptian police erupted outside a hospital morgue where the bodies of the six Christians killed on Christmas Eve were being kept, police sources said.
AFP - Clashes erupted on Thursday as thousands of Coptic Christians in a southern Egyptian village buried six of their number gunned down on Coptic Christmas Eve by men believed to be Muslims, security officials said.
Officials and the local bishop said three men in a car had raked pedestrians with gunfire along a street containing two churches and a shopping precinct late on Wednesday.
Bishop Kirilos said the victims were people who had just emerged from church after attending a Christmas Eve service, and the proximity of the shopping area might have drawn some of them to it.
Six Copts and a Muslim policeman were killed, while at least nine more Copts were wounded, two of them seriously, a security official said.
The wounded were evacuated to hospital in the nearby governorate of Sohag.
An estimated 5,000 Copts attended Thursday's funeral in Nagaa Hammadi, 40 miles (65 kilometres) from the popular tourist city of Luxor.
Police said a group of protesters stoned cars as the dead were buried, and police responded with tear gas. The demonstrators chanted: "With our spirit and blood, we will sacrifice ourselves for the Cross."
They said Copts earlier stoned police cars and the hospital where the bodies of the six dead were held before the service, chanting: "No to repression."
Security sources said sporadic trouble continued after the funerals.
An initial investigation into Wednesday's shooting reported that the gunmen opened fire as they sped along the street, killing and wounding people over a distance of 400 metres (yards).
As the car headed out of town the gunmen fired at a convent which also housed the bishop's offices before fleeing to a rural area near the town in Qena province, 700 kilometres (435 miles) south of Cairo.
Copts celebrate Christmas on January 7 along with many other Orthodox communities around the world.
Bishop Kirilos told AFP on Thursday that he saw gunmen spraying worshippers with automatic gunfire outside the archbishopric after the mass ended the previous night.
"We concluded the mass at 11:00 pm (2100 GMT) and I was heading to the bishopric when I saw a man, in a car, open fire with an automatic rifle at Copts who were walking past the building," Kirilos said in a phone interview.
"The gunman then continued to fire on Copts in the streets of the town," he said. "People are angry and very worried."
The bishop said the "author of this crime has a police record and should have been arrested" for past crimes, but is under the protection of prominent figures close to the ruling National Democratic Party.
Witnesses, cited by local officials, earlier said the main gunman is a Muslim wanted by police and linked the shooting to the abduction of a 12-year-old Muslim girl in November who was allegedly raped by a Coptic youth.
"The first elements of the investigation, based on testimony of people on the ground, indicate that the main shooter is a town resident identified as Mohammed Ahmed Hussein, who is wanted by the police," one official said.
Kirilos also told AFP that for the past week some of his parishioners had received cell phone hate calls and threats alleging that Muslims "will avenge the rape of the girl during the Christmas celebrations."
Copts, who represent under 10 percent of Egypt's 80-million-strong population, are the largest Christian community in the Middle East, but they frequently complain of discrimination, harassment and sectarian attacks.
In November, hundreds of Muslim protesters torched Christian-owned shops in the town of Farshut, near Nagaa Hammadi, and attacked a police station where they believed the suspected rapist was being held.
It was latest in a wave of sectarian tension between Muslims and Egypt's Copts.
On Wednesday, the head of the Coptic minority, Pope Shenuda III, led a Christmas midnight mass at the Abbassiya church in Cairo which was attended by thousands of worshippers, including President Hosni Mubarak's son and heir apparent Gamal.
Date created : 2010-01-07