QENA, Egypt (AFP) – Three Egyptian Muslims accused of gunning down six Coptic Christians last month in southern Egypt pleaded not guilty on Saturday at the start of their trial amid heavy security.
A Muslim policeman was also killed when three gunmen raked worshippers emerging from services with bullets on the eve of the Coptic Orthodox Christmas on January 6 in the village of Nagaa Hammadi.
It was the deadliest attack since 2000, when 20 Copts were killed in sectarian clashes.
Saturday’s hearing in an emergency security court in the city of Qena, capital of the Qena governorate where Nagaa Hammadi is located, was packed with journalists, lawyers and police, an AFP correspondent said.
The defendants — Mohammed al-Kammuni, Qorshi Abul Haggag and Hendawi Sayyed — pleaded “not guilty” as the judge read out the charges against them.
The suspects were arrested after the attack and a Qena prosecutor charged them with “premeditated murder, putting the life of citizens in danger and damage to public and private property,” a judicial source has said.
The killings sparked outrage among the country’s Copts and led to clashes with police as Nagaa Hammadi residents accused the authorities of refusing to recognise the attack as sectarian.
International condemnation also poured in after the attack, with the United States saying the incident showed “an atmosphere of intolerance” in Egypt and Pope Benedict XVI saying it has “caused indignation among many people.”
Egyptian officials have denied a sectarian element in the attack, insisting it is a purely criminal act and have linked it to the alleged rape of a Muslim girl by a Coptic man in November.
Copts, who account for nearly 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million, are the Middle East’s largest Christian community but complain of routine harassment and systematic discrimination and marginalisation.