CAIRO (Reuters) -Egyptian security forces arrested 59 Muslims on Saturday accused of setting fire to Christian homes and shops in clashes over church construction that underlined lingering sectarian tensions, security sources said.
They said prosecutors ordered the arrests after taking the testimony of 10 Coptic Christians who were hurt in the clashes on Friday in the village of Behma, about 60 km (40 miles) south of Cairo, in which hundreds of people from both faiths fought with sticks and hurled bricks and firebombs at one another.
The 59 Muslims were charged with arson and with spreading sectarian strife. Security sources said an unspecified additional number of Muslim villagers were being held without charges pending an investigation. No Christians were being held.
Relations between Muslims and minority Coptic Christians in Egypt are generally peaceful despite sporadic violence, but restrictions on building churches have been one of the main grievances of Egypt’s Copts.
Christians comprise up to 10 percent of Egypt’s roughly 75 million people, with the remainder being primarily Sunni Muslim.
Security sources said rumors that village Christians did not have a permit to build a church had sparked anger among Muslims that turned to violence after Friday prayers when about 300 Muslims clashed with about 200 Christians.
Police intervened to stop the clashes and sealed off the village. At least 27 Christian-owned houses and shops were damaged by fire, including 10 homes that were completely gutted.
They said Christians had complained to authorities that the Friday sermon at a village mosque had discussed ongoing church construction, sparking anger among worshippers who emerged from the mosque in a large group and then moved to the church site, where clashes erupted.
The sources said some Muslim villagers had also distributed pamphlets complaining about church construction.
A spokesman for Egypt’s interior ministry confirmed that around 500 Muslims had gathered after Friday prayers, and that the entrances to three homes had been set on fire. He said three people were hurt in the commotion, but declined to characterize it as a clash.
One security source said Christians in Behma were expanding a house that was used informally for prayer, although others said the Christians were constructing a new church from scratch. The sources could not immediately say whether the Christians had obtained proper building permits.
Egypt suffered its worst Christian-Muslim clashes in decades in 1999, when 20 Christians were killed, 22 people wounded and scores of shops destroyed in sectarian strife in the southern village of Kosheh.
In February, Muslims set fire to Christian-owned shops in southern Egypt after hearing rumors of a love affair between a Muslim woman and a Coptic Christian man.
Last year, a 45-year-old Muslim man stabbed a Coptic Christian man to death and wounded five others in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, sparking three days of sectarian clashes in which one Muslim was killed. Egypt says the attacker was mentally ill.