ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (AP) – Egyptian police have arrested 15 people in the aftermath of sectarian clashes in Alexandria that the Interior Ministry said were instigated by “fanatics” who “duped” people into participating.
Fights broke out among several hundred Coptic Christians and Muslims at the end of the funeral procession for Nushi Atta Girgis, 78, who was slain Friday outside Saints Church in the Mediterranean city following a prayer service.
Police arrested “some fanatic extremist elements who provoked skirmishes and threw stones at each other,” said a statement Saturday from the Interior Ministry. It said that the detainees, who included Copts and Muslims, “went too far” when they set two cars on fire and damaged several shops.
Some 15 people were injured and security forces used tear gas to disperse the disturbance in the Sidi Bishr district where the Saints Church is located, said the statement. It did not elaborate on the condition of the wounded.
Saturday night security forces were deployed around the district to maintain calm.
The clashes followed knife attacks at three churches in Alexandria Friday that left up to 16 wounded. Although it was Good Friday for many of the world’s Christians, the Copts and other Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Easter a week later.
Earlier Saturday, about 3,000 people gathered at Saints Church to mourn Girgis and church leaders blasted the government for its failure to protect Egypt’s Christian minority.
The Interior Ministry statement did not distinguish between Muslims and Christians in blaming clashes on “fanatics” and saying that those who participated had been “duped.”
Police had earlier said that the clashes were sparked by Copts who had attacked and provoked Muslims.
A Coptic doctor at the nearby St. Mark’s hospital, who was not at the scene of the clashes, said he was told that Muslim passers-by were angered by the slogans protesters shouted. “There was sort of a clash, and some people were injured,” Dr. Girgis Fawzi said. “We received one young Christian with minor injuries. He was treated and left the hospital.”
An official at al-Meery Hospital in Alexandria said that the facility had received five people with minor injuries after the clashes. “Most of them were people stabbed by knives,” the hospital official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to deal with the media. But not all the wounds were minor. A priest at St. George Church, one of the locations of the Friday stabbings, said that one young man involved in Saturday’s clashes had serious knife wounds to his arm, abdomen and head. “If he dies it will be a disaster,” he said. The man’s condition could not be independently confirmed.
A statement by the church leaders in Alexandria denounced Friday’s stabbings and blamed the government for not doing enough to protect the churches. It also accused the Interior Ministry of fabricating reports that only one mentally disturbed man was behind the three attacks.
Coptic Christians make up 10 percent of Egypt’s 73 million people and generally live in peace with the Muslim majority, though occasional sectarian clashes do occur. The United States urged the Coptic and Muslim communities of Alexandria to exercise tolerance and called on the “government of Egypt to investigate these attacks and swiftly bring the perpetrators to justice.”
The Interior Ministry identified the attacker as Mahmoud Salah-Eddin Abdel-Raziq and said he suffered from “psychological disturbances.”
Egypt’s last sectarian violence was last October, when Muslim militants attacked churches in the Moharrem Bek area of Alexandria protesting the distribution of the DVD that they deemed offensive to Islam. Four people were killed in weeklong riots.
Christians complain that they suffer job discrimination, particularly in the high ranks of the civil service where positions such as general, provincial governor and faculty head are almost invariably held by Muslims.