CAIRO — Thousands of Egyptian Christians went on a rampage Thursday after six members of their ancient community were gunned down as they left midnight Mass for Coptic Christmas in a southern town.
A Muslim guard was also killed, and nine others wounded, including three in serious condition.
The eruption of violence in Nag Hamadi, a mixed Christian-Muslim town with a history of religious tensions, served as a reminder of the government's chronic failure to address sectarian strains in the society at a time when Islamic militancy is gaining ground.
Thursday's violence began when Christians smashed ambulances outside the town's main hospital in frustration over delays in turning over the bodies for burial. Police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. Clashes resumed after the burial services, with angry Copts smashing shop windows, chasing Muslims off the streets and bringing down street light poles.
The violence followed an attack in which three gunmen in a car opened up with automatic guns on a crowd leaving a church in Nag Hamadi, about 40 miles north of the ancient ruins of Luxor.
Six Christians were killed along with a Muslim guard, according to security officials. Nine others were wounded, including three in critical condition.
The head of provincial security, Mahmoud Gohar, said security was beefed up in the town and neighboring villages, and checkpoints were set up in the area as tensions ran high among the town's Christian population. Gohar said an angry crowd from a nearby church smashed two police cars shortly after the attack.
A search for the gunmen was underway, but no arrests have been made by late Thursday.
Christians, mostly Orthodox Copts, account for about 10 percent of Egypt's predominantly Muslim population of some 80 million people. They 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.
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.
Rushing to contain the fallout from the Nag Hamadi attack, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, top government officials and the country's top Muslim cleric visited Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Egyptian Coptic church, in a show of solidarity and possible to head off fresh Christian protests.
The official Egyptian news agency quoted Shenouda and Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, grand sheik of al-Azhar – the top learning center for Sunni Muslims – as saying the attack was unlikely to harm what they called the strong bonds between Egypt's Muslims and Christians.
Similar comments have routinely been made by the two clerics as well as top government officials in the wake of past incidents of sectarian violence, leaving many to question whether such words do anything to help bring the two communities closer.
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.
Slogans chanted during the funeral procession for the six slain Christians reflected the depth of frustration felt by the Christians. "Long live the Cross," and "No to persecution," were among those chanted by some of the estimated 5,000 people who attended the funeral.
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 man is in custody awaiting trial.
Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent organization that monitors sectarian violence, said the country's security agencies had failed to anticipate the attack and criticized its handling of Muslim-Christian violence.
Authorities respond to clashes by repressing protests, imposing martial laws on tense areas and detaining scores from both communities to force a reconciliation, he said.
Bishop Kirollos, the local church leader in Nag Hamadi, said the six Christians killed were males in their teens and that the attack could have been motivated by revenge. He blamed radical Muslims.
He said he was concerned about violence on the eve of the Coptic Christmas, which fell on Thursday, because of threats that followed the alleged rape of the Muslim girl.
He recently received a message on his mobile phone that said: "It is your turn," he said.
"My faithful were also receiving threats in the streets, some shouting at them: 'We will not let you have festivities'," he said.
"We are facing a religious war and lax security."