CAIRO — Egypt's military rulers dispatched extra security forces to protect churches and sealed off a volatile Cairo district Sunday to prevent the spread of violent Muslim-Christian clashes that left at least 12 dead and more than 200 wounded overnight.
Egypt's Prime Minister Essam Sharaf canceled a tour of Gulf countries and led an emergency meeting of his caretaker Cabinet to address the worsening tensions between some conservative Muslims and the country's Coptic Christian minority. The deepening sectarian crisis threatens the ruling military council's ability to secure Egypt for its first elections since a popular revolution forced out President Hosni Mubarak in February.
The council announced military trials for the 190 people who were arrested overnight in connection with the deadly clashes in the Imbaba district. Muslim-Christian battles reportedly began after a group of Salafis, followers of a literalist branch of Islam, demonstrated outside the Saint Mina church, demanding the release of a woman they believed to be in church custody after her alleged conversion to Islam.
Witnesses gave conflicting accounts of Saturday night's violence, with local Muslims and Copts blaming one another. At some point, according to witnesses and amateur video, a group of men attacked the church with machetes, gunfire and Molotov cocktails. Another church nearby was set ablaze in the fighting. Copts celebrated a Mass there Sunday within its charred walls.
On Sunday, the government imposed a curfew in Imbaba, cordoned off many streets and beefed up security around the churches. Local residents also formed citizen patrols to prevent attacks on churches and mosques.
"The streets are calm, but the army is everywhere. There have been security cordons around churches here since last night, and I believe they'll be around for a long time," said Muhammad Abdelmaged, 26, an Imbaba resident.
The district's top Salafi cleric, Mohamed Ali, told state media Sunday that he'd investigated the story about the woman convert and found it to be "totally false." Salafist leaders denounced the sectarian violence and said their followers had played no organized role in it. A statement from four of the most popular Salafi clerics added that it's a crime to call "for foreign intervention in Egypt while its sons are totally capable of solving their problems internally."
The statement was an apparent response to Naguib Gibraeil, head of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights, who threatened to call for "international protection of Copts in Egypt if the Coptic demands are not fulfilled." A few dozen Copts demanding American protection rallied outside the U.S. Embassy Sunday.
The embassy condemned the "senseless sectarian violence and destruction" in a statement that also called for the Egyptian military to conduct a full and transparent investigation of the recent clashes.
Sectarian violence is just one aspect of the security vacuum that's emerged since the toppling of Mubarak's regime, which relied heavily on powerful — and often brutal — security forces to keep order. Since the revolution, Muslim-Christian relations have grown increasingly strained with sporadic bursts of sectarian violence.
In March, a church bombing at Atfeah, just outside Cairo, triggered deadly clashes that continued until Christian and Muslim leaders showed up to make personal appeals for unity. The strange case of Kamilia Shehata, a Coptic woman who reportedly disappeared after converting to Islam, led to another spasm of unrest. On Saturday, Shehata appeared on television for the first time in a year, saying she was born a Copt and would die a Copt.
Last month, residents of the Qena province protested their second consecutive Coptic governor. Although much of the opposition was political and even included some Copts, the issue played in the state media as a sectarian one, drawing thousands to the street for weeks, paralyzing the rail system in southern Egypt and causing millions of dollars in losses. The government dismissed the governor and has yet to replace him.
"What is happening now is a natural development for the continuing unpunished attacks on Copts all over Egypt," said Gibraeil, the Union for Human Rights chief. "If those who burned the Atfeah church were brought to court and fiercely punished, we would never have witnessed the Imbaba violence."
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2011