Relatives of Coptic Christians who were killed during clashes with the… (Khalil Hamra / Associated…)
Reporting from Cairo — Mourners wept over the coffins of Coptic Christians on Monday as Egyptian officials and religious leaders sought to ease sectarian tensions amid rising anger toward the nation's ruling military council.
Funerals for four of the more than 20 Coptic protesters killed Sunday by army police and thugs in plainclothes kept the country on edge. The Coptic Church denounced the military for allowing the attacks. And Christians hurled rocks at police outside a Cairo hospital where the bodies of other protesters awaited burial.
"Coptic blood in Egypt is cheap and the military council knows they can get away with killing us because we're a minority," said Fakhri Girgis Fakhri, a mourner at the funeral presided over by Coptic Pope Shenouda III. "When a Muslim protester gets killed, the whole country gets on its feet, but when Copts are killed, nothing happens."
The violence broke out Sunday when thousands of Copts protesting the recent burning of a church in southern Egypt were attacked by thugs as armored personnel carriers rammed into crowds and crushed demonstrators. Police said the protesters started the trouble by pelting security forces with stones and gasoline bombs.
"Strangers got in the middle of our sons and committed mistakes to be blamed on our sons," said a statement from the Coptic Church. It added that attacks and discrimination against Christians are "problems that occur repeatedly and go unpunished."
Dozens of people have been detained and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has ordered an investigation.
The deaths exacerbated religious animosities and led to condemnation of the military by human rights groups. The military is reviled by many Muslims and Copts for failing to turn the country over to a democratic government while expanding martial law to crack down on protesters, political activists and the media.
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf suggested that the violence that killed 25 people, including three soldiers, and wounded nearly 300 was the work of foreign hands or conspirators possibly connected to loyalists of toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
"Instead of advancing to build a modern state of democratic principles, we are back searching for security and stability," said Sharaf, whose credibility with the public has steadily eroded. "We will not surrender to these malicious conspiracies and we will not accept reverting back."
Many Egyptians, however, believe the unrest and divisions will not ease until the military acknowledges its mistakes and relinquishes power.
What is unfolding is a dramatic reversal of goodwill for an army that was praised by most protesters during last winter's uprising and now is regarded as a poorly disguised extension of Mubarak's police state. This frustration has deepened the nation's political turmoil ahead of November's parliamentary elections, which are expected to highlight the influence of Islamists.
Ultraconservative Islamists have burned churches and inflamed sectarian passions in recent months. Copts said the attacks on protesters Sunday — the bloodiest unrest since February — also revealed the virulent anti-Christian attitudes held by many in the security forces. Others said the military was stoking unrest to justify further tightening its grip on the country despite its tumbling credibility.
The violence against Copts, who make up 10% of the population, reverberated well beyond Cairo, raising concern in Europe and the U.S. about the ability of the military council to protect human rights and help Egypt progress.
"Now is a time for restraint on all sides so that Egyptians can move forward together to forge a strong and united Egypt," said a statement from the White House.
In efforts to calm the growing tensions, moderate Muslim and Coptic clerics met and urged the military council to enact stricter laws to protect the construction of houses of worship. Much of the ill will between Christians and Muslims stems from the Islamists' complaints that churches are built too close to mosques.
The coffins of the four protesters were carried through the door of Coptic Cathedral in Cairo's Abbasiya neighborhood. Prayers were often interrupted by young Copts who repeated chants such as "With soul and blood, we protect you, oh cross!"
One mourner, Youssef Agib, said his cousin Romani Makari brushed aside his family's warnings and headed out for the protest Sunday.
"We found his dead body in one hospital and we were told he took a bullet in his head," he said. "We kept asking ourselves, 'Why would a peaceful protester be shot in the head?'"
Ishaak Tadros stood outside the cathedral as hands reached out to touch the passing coffins. He said he was never interested in the politics of social struggles. But when he heard how many of his fellow Copts had died, he closed his grocery, put on a pressed open-collar shirt and walked toward the funeral.
"We all feel very unsafe now," he said. "The number of Copts fleeing the country is on the rise, and to be honest, I'd jump at a chance to immigrate and live abroad. I never considered leaving Egypt, but now I seriously do."
Hassan is a news assistant in The Times' Cairo bureau.