Security tightened following Friday’s clashes in Naga Hammadi

Egyptian police have stepped up security measures in the southern town of Naga Hammadi to head off renewal of violence after Friday’s night clashes between Muslims and Christians, security sources said.

Muslims and Christians set fire to each others’ homes and shops near Naga Hammadi on Friday, two days after a gunman killed six Coptic Christians in a drive-by shooting, security sources added.

"Four houses and a shop belonging to Christians in the village of Taraks were set on fire by Muslims, while four shops owned by Muslims in the village of Bahgorah were set on fire by Christians," a security source said. The villages are near Naga Hammadi.

Six people, Christian and Muslim, were injured in the fires, they added.

Police have taken 46 statements from Muslims and Christians in the area accusing members of the other faith of attacking their houses and damaging their properties, the sources said.

The drive-by shootings in Naga Hammadi took place around midnight on Coptic Christmas Eve on Wednesday night. Muslim and Christian groups held separate protests on Thursday and Friday.

The source said police had detained about 25 of the 2,000 protesters.

On Saturday, Egyptian police have reinforced its troops in Naga Hammadi and the surrounding villages to prevent further escalation, the sources added.

The state’s Middle East News Agency on Saturday reported that local officials of the ruling National Democratic Party are currently holding negotiations with Bishop Kirollos of the Naga Hammadi Diocese to reopen Christian-owned shops.

Security sources named three Muslims, who have since surrendered to police, as the suspected gunmen. They first fired on a crowd in a shopping area near a church in Naga Hammadi, killing two Christians.

They then went to the nearby church and shot five more, including the church’s Muslim guard. Another nine Christians were wounded.

Police investigators in the city (600 km south of Cairo) said two of the three assailants were distantly related to a Muslim girl allegedly raped by a Christian more than a month earlier.

Egypt’s government said the violence was not sectarian and was an isolated incident, a position which was utterly condemned by Egyptian activists on Saturday who staged a sit-in in down town Cairo protesting the state’s failure to protect the country’s Christian minority.

“It’s nor an individual crime, neither a criminal one, it’s a sectarian one,” shouted a protester in front of Egypt’s prosecutor-general office in down town Cairo.

The sit-in was organized by the newly established National Committee for Combating Sectarian Violence (NCCSV), a loose coalition of non-governmental organizations and secular political parties which was formed last week to mobilize efforts against growing sectarian violence in Egypt.

The nearly 300 protesters, who were cordoned off by heavy security, demanded that perpetrators of sectarian violence to be trialed and sentenced in courts.

“We filed a petition to the prosecutor-general today appealing for a retrial of 19 people who were acquitted last month after being referred to a court in Upper Egypt for torching and destroying Christian properties,” said Khaled Aly, a lawyer and a member of the NCCSV.

“The prosecutor-general approved our petition and ordered a retrial on February 26,” Aly added.

Last month, a criminal court in the southern town of Dairout, Assiut, acquitted 17 people who were arrested in October following riots erupted in response to the slaying of a Copt, after his son was reported to have had an affair with a Muslim girl.

Muslim youth smashed the windows of the Dairout Metropolitan Church and a second church in Mahmudiyya village, as well as stores and pharmacies in the predominantly Coptic village of Abu Gabal.

Rights groups complain that Egyptian judicial authorities usually set free perpetrators of sectarian violence.

In 2004, the Court of Cassation sentenced four Muslims to up to 13 years in prison, while releasing the remaining 92 people who were being trialed following the large-scale attacks on Christian homes in January 2000 in the southern village of Kosheh, Sohag, which left twenty Christians and one Muslim dead.

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