CAIRO — A march by Coptic Christians turned deadly Sunday when protesters clashed with government forces in central Cairo, leaving at least 19 people dead and more than 200 injured in one of the bloodiest days in Egypt since the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
What began as a protest against restrictions on church-building — residents in Aswan, in southern Egypt, tried to block the construction of a Coptic church last week — quickly disintegrated into violence and underscored the sectarian tensions roiling a nation that is increasingly frustrated with the temporary military government.
Hundreds of mostly Christian demonstrators, some carrying crosses and pictures of Jesus, massed in downtown Cairo, where activists said they were attacked by thugs. The clashes drew in heavily armed military police, some of whom drove armored vehicles into protesters at full speed, television pictures showed.
"Worst day of my life," the prominent human rights activist Hossam Bahgat wrote on Twitter after seeing 17 bodies at the morgue at Cairo's Coptic Hospital.
The ruling military council announced a curfew from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. Monday. Government forces raided coffee shops around central Cairo and ordered them to close, to keep demonstrators from gathering there.
State television appeared to take the side of the security forces, calling on "honest Egyptians" to come out into the street and "protect the army from the Copts." Activists described such statements as extremely worrisome and said they suggested an ongoing unwillingness by the ruling military to end the de facto discrimination that Egypt's sizable Christian minority faces.
The protest began when a few hundred people began marching from the Shobra district of Cairo, which has a substantial Christian population, toward the center of Cairo. Television images showed an army vehicle and police car that had been torched. Gunshots echoed on and off for hours as military police chased the protesters out of Cairo's main squares and into side streets.
The flare-up was the latest in a string of incidents demonstrating unhappiness with military rule and the increasingly strained relationship between Muslims and Christians since Mubarak was overthrown. In May, at least 12 people died in Cairo's Imbaba district when a mob attacked a church with machetes and Molotov cocktails.
"This is all happening at a time when the political class is in crisis, its confidence in the (military council) at an all-time low and the general population is so fed up of all the uncertainty and chaos that it is having buyer's remorse about the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak," the political analyst Issandr El Amrani wrote on his blog.
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)