CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt said Thursday it would launch a review of disputed permits for churches in a bid to head off sectarian violence, days after 25 people were killed at a demonstration by Christians over one such dispute.
Sunday’s violence, the worst since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February, has given rise to fears of widening sectarian unrest. Christian activists say the deaths were caused by security forces who reacted with disproportionate force, driving into the crowd after “thugs” attacked protesters.
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people, say Islamists have been using disputes over the legal status of some church buildings to provoke hostility.
The Justice Ministry was charged with “forming a committee to review all the incidents that occurred in the past few months concerning disputes over churches ... to identify those responsible and take appropriate action,” Information Minister Osama Heikal said in a statement on state television.
He referred to cases where churches had been attacked or damaged, including one in Helwan near Cairo in March and another in the capital.
The government would “settle the situation of unlicensed churches,” he said. He did not give details but the comment suggested that the aim was to legalize churches in dispute, which Christians have demanded.
Christians have long complained of discrimination in Egypt, citing rules that they say make it more difficult to build a church than a mosque. They say they fear a worsening of sectarian violence because of the emergence of Islamist groups that were suppressed under Mubarak.
In Sunday’s protest, Christians who took to the streets accused Muslims of partially demolishing a church in Aswan province at the end of September. Muslims in the village say the building did not have a license, but deny attacking it.
Writing by Edmund Blair