January 8, 2010 / 3:03 PM / 10 years ago

Protests continue over Egypt Copt shootings

CAIRO (Reuters) - Separate protests by Muslim and Christian groups broke out in southern Egypt on Friday after six Coptic Christians and a Muslim policeman were killed in a drive-by shooting on Wednesday, security sources said.

Egyptian riot police take position as a curfew is imposed in the southern Egyptian town of Nagaa Hamady, in Qena, 700 km (435 miles) south of Cairo, January 8, 2010. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

The killings took place just before midnight on Coptic Christmas Eve when a gunman, accompanied by two others, fired on a crowd in a shopping area in Nagaa Hamady city, killing two. The gunman then went to Mary Guirguis Church and shot five more, including the church’s Muslim guard.

Police investigations in the city, about 60 km (40 miles) north of the tourist and archaeological center of Luxor, revealed two of the three assailants, who turned themselves in on Friday, were distantly related to a Muslim girl raped by a Christian more than a month earlier.

Witnesses said about 300 Coptic Christians gathered in front of Mary Guirguis church and called for the resignation of the governor of Qena, where Nagaa Hamady is located, for failing to ensure the safety of the city’s Coptic Christians.

One thousand Muslims also demonstrated in the nearby area of el sahel, 300 meters from the church, to protest the rape of the Muslim girl.

Both groups have accused one another of religious persecution, but there were no clashes on Friday.

About 1,000 Coptic Christians had staged a protest in Nagaa Hamady on Thursday, saying the attack was an act of persecution aimed at Egyptian Christians.

Egypt’s government denied it was sectarian violence, however, and said it was an isolated incident.

“The Nagaa Hamady incident is a crime committed by a thug and does not have anything to do with Islam,” Khairat Osman, secretary-general of Egypt’s ruling party in Qena governorate, where Nagaa Hamady is located, was quoted as saying by state agency MENA.

“All religions promote peace and love, and there are good relations between Coptics and Muslims.”

Christians account for about 10 percent of Egypt’s predominantly Muslim population of about 78 million. Sectarian violence is rare but disputes occasionally erupt.

Reporting by Ahmed Shalaby; writing by Shaimaa Fayed; Editing by Matthew Jones

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