CAIRO, (AFP) – Egypt’s Coptic Pope Shenouda III appealed for calm as Christian protesters clashed with police for a third day in a row after a New Year’s Day bombing killed 21 churchgoers.
The spiritual head of the Middle East’s largest Christian minority also called on the government to address his flock’s grievances.
The unrest came as police went on high alert and tightened church security for Christmas, which Copts celebrate on Friday, as investigators hunted the perpetrators of the Alexandria church bombing.
Tensions spilled over again late on Monday as protesters in a northern Cairo neighbourhood threw rocks at police who tried to block a march by thousands of Copts.
Riot police responded by throwing rocks back at the protesters, who also pelted armoured police cars with stones and bottles.
An AFP correspondent said at least 10 protesters were wounded, several of them carried away bloodied by stones hurled from police lines.
The official MENA news agency reported that two officers and 12 policemen were wounded in the clash.
“I call on our sons for calm, as calm can solve all issues,” the Coptic leader said in a television interview, the text of which was also published by the MENA.
“The slogans used by some have transgressed all values and manners… and some have tried to use violence, while violence is absolutely not our method,” he said, blaming unspecified people he said were unrelated to his community.
Protesters also blocked a ringroad in two districts of the Nile Delta province of Qalubiya, burning tyres and stoning cars, MENA reported.
Monday’s unrest came a day after 45 policemen were wounded in a confrontation with Coptic protesters outside St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, where the Coptic pope has his headquarters.
Protesters also threw rocks at a minister who had come to visit the pope, and a health ministry official said 27 other people were wounded in the clash.
Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people, have been targets of sectarian attacks and complain of discrimination, such as the legal requirement for them to obtain presidential permission to build churches.
In the interview, Shenouda said the state must address Coptic complaints.
“If it finds a law that harms some, the state has to correct the law or legislate new ones,” he said.
Coptic Christmas this year falls on the weekly Muslim day of prayer and rest, and Shenouda said he intended to say mass as usual on Christmas Eve.
Egyptian security forces cancelled leave for senior officers and tightened surveillance of airports and ports to prevent suspects from leaving the country, as new checkpoints were set up across the nation.
Saturday’s attack also wounded 79 people when an apparent suicide car bomber detonated his payload as hundreds of worshippers were leaving Al-Qiddissin (The Saints) church in Alexandria after midnight.
It immediately sparked protests by angry Copts who called for protection and justice.
A security official said on Sunday that about 20 people were detained for questioning but there was no evidence that any of them was directly connected to the attack in the northern Egyptian city.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, which came two months after an Al-Qaeda-linked group said it was behind a deadly Baghdad church hostage-taking and threatened Coptic Christians as well.
The group demanded the release of two women, both priests’ wives, saying the Coptic church was holding them against their will after they converted to Islam. The church denies they have converted.
An Al-Qaeda-linked website that published that threat posted in December a list of Coptic churches in Egypt and Europe it said should be attacked, including Al-Qiddissin church in Alexandria.
In Europe, a French security official said on Monday that police were investigating threats against Coptic churches and would reinforce security at 19 of the churches.
The Austrian interior ministry said it would secure the country’s seven Coptic churches.
The Alexandria bombing has further underscored the vulnerability of the Copts.
Last year began with a massacre of six Copts and a Muslim security guard after a Coptic Christmas Eve mass and ended with two Coptic protesters killed in clashes during a protest over a Cairo church permit.