Egypt Sectarian Clash Leads To Multiple Deaths

May 7, 2011 11:15:15 PM

CAIRO, May 7 (Reuters) - At least five people were killed in a sectarian clash in Egypt on Saturday over a Christian woman who allegedly had converted to Islam, according to officials.

Interfaith relationships often cause tension in Egypt, where Christians make up about 10 percent of its 80 million people.

The strife represents another challenge to Egypt's military rulers who are trying to restore law and order after President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down in a popular uprising in February.

Witnesses said some 500 conservative Islamists known as salafists gathered at the Saint Mina Church in the Cairo suburb of Imbaba demanding to take custody of a woman they said had converted to Islam.

A shouting match ensued between church guards and neighbours and the Islamists. The verbal clash developed into a full-fledged confrontation during which the two sides exchanged gunfire, firebombs and stones.

"I just left one young man dead inside the church," one Christian witness told journalists at the scene.

Authorities deployed large numbers of soldiers and police, backed by armoured vehicles, to the area. The army fired shots in the air and used teargas to separate both sides, witnesses said.

A security source put the death toll at six and said 75 had been wounded, according to the state MENA news agency. The director of the health department in Giza province, Abdel-Halim al-Behairi said five had died and 54 had been wounded. He told MENA that three of the wounded were in serious condition.

A Reuters witness said later that another church in the same area was on fire and had been severely damaged. There were no reports of any further casualties.

The Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa, a senior Islamic religious figure, called for calm. "All Egyptians must stand shoulder to shoulder and prevent strife," he told MENA.

He also urged the military council to stop anyone from meddling with the security of Egypt.

Christians complain about unfair treatment, including rules they say make it easier to build a mosque than a church.

Last year Egypt saw more than its usual share of sectarian strife, and a rights groups has said such clashes have been on the rise. Muslims and Christians had been brought together during the protests that ousted Mubarak.

(Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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