LUXOR, Egypt (AP) – Police arrested on Friday three men suspected of carrying out a Christmas Eve drive-by shooting in southern Egypt that killed six Christians, a security official said.
Police discovered the car used in the attack and then surrounded farm fields where the suspects were believed to be hiding late Thursday, before taking them into custody the next day, the official added on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The three men are all known to have criminal records, according to the state media.
Three gunmen opened fire on a crowd of worshippers leaving a church in the town of Naga Hamadi, 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of the famed ruins of Luxor on Wednesday, the day before Egypt’s orthodox Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas.
A Muslim guard was also killed, and nine others wounded, including three in serious condition.
Thousands of Christians in Naga Hamadi went on a rampage Thursday protesting the attack and perceived discrimination against their community. They clashed with police and smashed ambulance and shop windows.
On Friday, though, officials reported that calm had been restored amid a massive security presence.
Egyptian Prosecutor General Abdel-Maguid Mahmoud arrived Friday to take charge of investigations into the attack and there was also a major meeting of security heads to ensure that violence does not erupt anew, especially following weekly Friday prayers.
The Interior Ministry said it suspected that the Nag Hamadi attack was in retaliation for the alleged November rape of a 12-year-old Muslim girl by a Christian man in the same town.
The local branch of the ruling National Democratic Party has asked leaders of both Muslim and Christian communities to help in ending violence, according to state media.
Christians, mostly Orthodox Copts, account for about 10 percent of Egypt’s predominantly Muslim population of some 80 million people. They celebrate Christmas every year on Jan. 7.
The Copts generally live in peace with Muslims although clashes and tensions occasionally occur, particularly in southern Egypt, mostly over land or church construction disputes.
The attack on the holiest day in the Coptic calendar was the worst known incident of sectarian violence in a decade.
In 2000, Christian-Muslim clashes left 23 people, all but two of them Christian, dead. The clashes were touched off by an argument between a Coptic merchant and a Muslim shopper in a village after years of simmering tensions. The latest attack, however, was unusual in that it appeared to have been planned, in contrast to the spontaneous violence that had in the past erupted from disputes between Muslims and Copts.
The thorny issue of Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt has taken added significance in recent years given the growing Islamic militancy and the increasing number of Christians, fed up with their perceived second-class status, becoming radicalized. Widespread poverty, high unemployment and the near total lack of genuine political reform are believed to have helped deepen the sectarian faultline.