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Qena--Seven people have been killed in a drive-by shooting outside a church in Egypt as Christians left a late night mass on the eve of Coptic Christmas.
Officials said three men in a car drove by a group of worshippers as they were walking out of the Mar Yohana church and opened fire with machineguns into the crowd just before midnight on Wednesday.
The interior ministry said the attack in the town of Naga Hammadi in southern Qena province was suspected to be in retaliation for the November rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian man in the same town.
The ministry said witnesses had identified the lead attacker.
Bishop Kirollos of the Naga Hammadi Diocese said that the attackers who were driving a Fiat were “targeting him.”
“At 11:15 p.m., a group of deacons and I were leaving the church when we saw a Fiat with three men carrying guns who started shooting at us,” Kirollos told Al Masry Al Youm. “The deacons pushed me back at the church while six of them were gunned downed with a Muslim security guard,” he added.
The bishop expressed his astonishment at the security’s failure to protect the church despite previous threats. “Security forces were completely absent from the scene,” he explained.
Eye witnesses said that two police cars with at least ten security officers and guards left the church at 7:30 p.m., about an hour and a half after the start of the mass.
Bishop Kirollos said he was concerned about violence on the eve of Coptic Christmas, which falls on Thursday, because of previous threats following the rape of the 12-year-old girl in November.
He got a message on his mobile phone saying: "It is your turn."
"I did nothing with it. My faithful were also receiving threats in the streets, some shouting at them: 'We will not let you have festivities'," he said.
Kirollos said he ended his Christmas Mass one hour earlier than normal because of the threats.
Christian churchgoers who spoke to Al-Masry Al-Youm earlier on Wednesday said that they would not attend the mass from “fear on their lives.” “I will watch Pope Shenouda’s ceremony on television,” said a Christian young man.
The attack happened in the town of Nagaa Hammadi in Qena Governorate (600km south of Cairo).
Bishop Kirollos said Muslim residents of Naga Hammadi and neighboring villages had rioted for five days in November and torched and damaged Christian properties in the area after the rape.
"For days, I had expected something to happen on Christmas day," said the bishop, adding that police had told him to stay home for fear of further violence.
The bishop said he had an idea of who the attackers were, calling them "Muslim radicals".
"It is all religious now. This is a religious war about how they can finish off the Christians in Egypt," he said.
On Thursday, clashes broke out in Naga Hammadi between more than 2,000 Christian Copts and security forces which fired tear gas and bullets to disperse the angry protestors, eye witnesses said.
Clashes erupted outside a hospital morgue where the bodies of the six Christians killed the previous day were kept, with protesters hurling stones at law enforcing agents, police officials said.
The furious protestors chanted anti-government slogans and took down a photo of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Reuters reported. They demanded that Qena Governor Magdy Ayoub to step down for failure to protect the Christian minority in the southern province. Ayoub is the only Christian among Egypt’s 29 governors.
Angry crowds of Coptic youth also marched over Bahgoura village, armed with sticks and rocks, smashing closed shops and several cars on the road. Muslim residents hurled rocks at the marchers from the balconies. Three police cars showed up and started firing in the air, but then disappeared for fear of being outnumbered amid brief clashes, as witnessed by Al-Masry Al-Youm reporter on the scene.
"The age of martyrdom is coming back," said one Coptic protester. "We will not change our religion."
Earlier on Monday, a group of rights groups and political parties launch a new campaign to protest what they called the state’s “reluctance and complicity” in protecting Egypt’s Christian Minority.
“State’s officials must be condemned for remaining silent about recent sectarian clashes, a position that projects the government as bestowing a kind of endorsement and support” for perpetrators of sectarian violence, the newly established National Committee for Combating Sectarian Violence said in a statement.
Prosecutor-general Adbel Meguid Mahmoud on Thursday ordered a thourough investigation of Naga Hammadi’s attack, Egypt’s second bloodiest sectarian-related accident after the large-scale assault on Christian villagers in January 2000 in the southern village of Kosheh, Sohag, which left twenty Christians and one Muslim dead.
Christians, mostly Coptic, account for about 10 per cent of Egypt's 83-million predominantly Muslim population.