CAIRO – New sectarian violence erupted in a village near Cairo Wednesday following the death of a Muslim man, prompting all the local Christians to flee, church and security officials said.
Tensions flare frequently between Egypt's majority Muslims and minority Christians, but clashes rarely result in such a flight of an entire Christian community, about 100 families, said Ishak Ibrahim, who monitors religious freedom in Egypt for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
The violence in Dahshour, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Cairo, is the first case of sectarian clashes in the weeks since Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood took over as president. The election of an Islamist heightened fears among Egypt's Christian and other minorities that their rights would be curtailed, and that they might become targets of extremist Muslim attacks.
The deposed regime of Hosni Mubarak kept a tight lid on Islamists. Since his overthrow a year and a half ago, violence against Christians has taken a turn for the worse, including violence by security forces.
About 10 percent of Egypt's mainly Muslim 82 million people are Christian.
Security officials said police fired tear gas early Wednesday at angry Muslims who were trying to set fire to the local church. The rioters, who were returning from the burial of a Muslim man who died in the clashes, damaged several Christian properties and set three police trucks on fire.
Sixteen people, including 10 policemen, were injured, said the security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information to reporters.
The local Giza Archbishop's office said in a statement that the Christian families fled the village fearing further attacks from Muslims.
The rioters "broke the church's windows, and doors of homes nearby," the statement said. While security forces prevented a further attack on the church, the rioters "looted and torched the shops (of Christians), including a jewelry shop ... and terrorized the local community, forcing them to leave their homes."
Sectarian violence first erupted in Dahshour on Friday following an argument between a Christian laundry worker and his client, a Muslim, whose shirt he burned. The Muslim man and friends went to the Christian's home to continue the argument, provoking the Christian to lob firebombs at the crowd gathering outside his home, EIPR said, quoting witness accounts.
The firebombs injured a bystander who died Tuesday of his wounds, further aggravating tensions. A group of Muslims tried to attack the local church, but other Muslims protected it until security forces arrived and dispersed the mob, EIPR said.
Sayed Hamam, a 22-year old university student and resident of Dahshour, said security was heavily deployed in the village, and reconciliation attempts were under way to bring the Christians back. He said most have moved to a nearby village.
"We are very saddened," he said. "We used to pride ourselves on how peacefully we lived together for years. We are considering it a big feud in one clan, not a Muslim-Christian fight."
Hamam said the police and big families in the village are in talks with the local priest and the father of the killed resident to calm the tension.
The Coptic Christian laundry worker who threw the deadly firebombs, his father and brother have been detained and charged with premeditated murder and possession of explosives, the group said. Five Muslims involved in the violence are wanted in the case but have yet to be detained, it said.
Ibrahim of EIPR said the response of the security forces to the rising tension in the village followed a pattern of inaction and ignoring warning signs.
"The signs of rising tension were there. Despite that, the security didn't deal with it and didn't protect the people and their properties. They didn't do their job," Ibrahim said. "It is rare that the village empties out of its Christians."
The local priest told EIPR that the police arrived half an hour after the clashes erupted and did little to stop the looting and arson. The group said often police prefer to let the Muslims act out their anger, believing that would eventually defuse the tension.
Attempts by The Associated Press to reach the local priest were unsuccessful.
The violence came after the U.S. State Department said in its annual report on religious freedom in 2011 that Egypt's government has failed to curb violence against the Christian minority and has at times itself been involved in the violence. It also criticized the government's recurrent denial that the violence is sectarian in nature, often blaming it on criminal or family disputes.
"The government generally failed to investigate and prosecute effectively perpetrators of violence against Coptic Christians and continued to favor informal 'reconciliation sessions,' which generally precluded criminal prosecution for crimes against Copts and contributed to a climate of impunity that encouraged further assaults," the report said.
The period covered by the report was well before Morsi was elected president. The year was highlighted by the overthrow of Mubarak in February and the assumption of power by the military. Morsi took office a month ago, but many of his powers have been usurped by the military.