At least 19 people have been killed and more than 150 injured in fierce clashes between Egyptian Copts and military which broke out in the capital, Cairo, on Sunday.
Violence has erupted between Coptic Christians, who were protesting against a recent attack on a church, and the country’s military forces, AP reports.
The agency cited the Christians as saying that their rally had begun as a peaceful sit-in near the television building near the Nile.
The demonstration soon turned violent, however, after the protesters were attacked by, in their words, some ‘thugs’ who were throwing stones and firing pellets at them.
The clashes eventually reached the famous Tahrir Square, by which time thousands were involved, attacking each other with sticks, stones and firebombs. Protesters reportedly snatched arms from soldiers and directed them against the security forces.
Among the injured are government military troops, who the protesters reportedly fired at. At least two soldiers have also been killed in the clashes, Itar-Tass news agency reports.
The city’s hospitals are crowded with dozens of injured, many with bullet wounds.
Christian protesters are accusing the country’s military of being lenient on anti-Christian attacks that are on the increase across Egypt. Several days ago a Christian church, which had reportedly been built illegally, was destroyed and partly burned south of the city of Luxor.
The country’s Christian community, which constitutes 10 per cent of the Egyptian population, is said to be concerned with the rise of ultra-conservative Islamists in the country.
According to Mark Almond from the Bilkent University in Turkey, the unrest shows that Egypt, as a secular state, is under threat.
”The development of this situation is becoming very alarming,” he said. “It is alarming because of the religious division, but it also is alarming for the political future of Egypt which after all is supposed to start its elections in six weeks’ time to choose a new parliament.”
“There is real big question here symbolically. Is Egypt going to go from being a secular dictatorship, if you like, to being an Islamic dictatorship?” Almond added. “There may well be many more people who will be happy to live with Islamic law in force, but there are significant groups, 10 per cent of the population are Christians and many secular Egyptians, many tolerant Egyptians, who would find themselves probably becoming much less free than they had been before February if such an Islamic group came to power.”