CAIRO – Hundreds of Christians smashed cars and windows and tried to assault a municipal building in Cairo Wednesday after police violently stopped the construction of a church, leaving one person dead and underscoring serious Egypt's sectarian tensions.
Police clashed with Christians first at the church construction site in the early hours of the morning and then several hours later when a mob of hundreds assaulted the local governor's office in retaliation.
The slain Christian was shot in the thigh and died after arriving at a nearby hospital, according to the official Middle East News Agency, which also said 68 people were injured in the clashes and 133 were arrested. Two priests were summoned by the general prosecutor for interrogation.
Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million. They complain frequently of discrimination, though they generally live in peace with the Muslim majority with occasional flare-ups of tension and violence, especially over limits on church building.
The government said construction had been ordered halted in this case because the building was not licensed to become a house of worship.
"They had previously been ordered to cease construction due to violations of building safety code standards, and because they were attempting to illegally transform the building into a church for the conduct of religious services," said a statement.
A Coptic priest involved in the construction in the Omraniya neighborhood of Giza, Cairo's twin city, said that 5,000 security forces cordoned off the site and blocking the arrival of construction materials at 3:00 am, while workers were on the roof.
"The security forces started the whole thing," Mina Zarif, the priest of the nearby church of Mar Mena said. "The workers became fed up and started throwing stones."
The government said protesters were blocking a major highway and had to be cleared.
"Repeated police requests to cease the violence were ignored by the demonstrators, at which point security officials had no choice but to control and disperse the gathering through the use of tear gas," a statement said.
A few hours later, some 700 Christians, many bearing makeshift crosses, descended on the headquarters of the Giza governor where they were met by riot police armed with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Governor Gen. Sayyed Abdel Aziz told the official news agency that rioters had tried and failed to storm the building.
After the demonstrations had been dispersed, 15 police trucks still surrounded the area of the church and there was heavy security throughout the neighborhood.
Zarif, one of the construction supervisors, admitted that the four story building was actually licensed as a community center in 2009 rather than a house of worship.
"What is the problem in bypassing an already unjust and flawed law? The church does that all the time, turning service buildings into churches," the unapologetic priest said.
The Coptic community says authorities in Egypt are reluctant to approve permits to build churches, which they say they need to accommodate growing numbers of worshippers.
One way to evade the rules is to obtain permits for Christian service centers, which they then turn to churches.
Medhat Kalada, head of the Geneva-based United Copts organization, said that the government has a "double-standard" with complicated procedures needed for the construction of the churches in comparison to the relative ease in building mosques.
"The government is discriminating against Christians when it comes to building churches," he said. The government insists Christians enjoy the same rights as Muslims.
Human rights groups say attacks on Copts are on the rise, underscoring the government's failure to address chronic sectarian strains in a society where religious radicalism is gaining ground.
Last week, Muslims in the southern Egyptian province of Qena set fire to 10 houses belonging to Christians following rumors a Copt had an affair with a Muslim girl.
Last year, also in Qena, a Coptic man was accused of kidnapping and raping a 12-year-old Muslim girl. The alleged assault led to widespread protests by the Muslim community and increased tensions between the two religious groups, which culminated in the murder of six Copts and one Muslim security guard at a church on Jan. 6.