Ten dead in Egypt clash, premier calls talks

Egyptians gather next to a building belonging to Christians that was set on fire  during clashes between Muslims and Christians in the Imbaba neighborhood of Cairo on Sunday, May 8. (AP Photo)
CAIRO, May 8 (Reuters): Egypt's prime minister called an emergency cabinet meeting on Sunday after 10 people died in bloody clashes in a Cairo suburb over the conversion of a Christian woman to Islam. The sectarian conflict on Saturday was Egypt's worst since 13 people died in violence on March 9 sparked by a church burning and throws down a new challenge for generals ruling the country since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
There was a brief burst of gunfire on Sunday in the neighborhood where the violence had taken place. About 500 conservative Islamists known as Salafists massed outside the Saint Mina Church in the Cairo suburb of Imbaba on Saturday demanding Christians there hand over a woman they said had converted to Islam and was being held against her will.
The Salafists were joined by other Muslims who demanded access to the church to see if she was inside. Tensions flared, gunfire broke out and the two sides threw firebombs and stones. Soldiers and police fired shots in the air and used teargas to separate the two sides but stone-throwing skirmishes went on through the night in streets near the church.
A power cut plunged the neighborhood into darkness, making it harder for the security forces to quell the violence. Another church nearby, Saint Mary's, was set on fire and badly damaged in the overnight clashes. "My son attends this church. How can we ever feel safe?" said Nashaat Boshra, who stood crying in front of Saint Mary's on Sunday. "This is religious strife facilitated by the army and police. Let's just face the truth."

By Sunday morning, the army had stationed tanks in streets around the church and was checking people walking in the area. Residents warned passers-by to avoid the neighborhood which was generally calm on Sunday apart from the brief burst of gunfire. "I think the army is in a state of confusion," said Gamal Eid, a prominent author and human rights activist. "It is afraid to take serious action against extremists so as not to be accused of suppressing these movements."
Egypt's army said on Sunday that 190 people would be tried in military courts over Saturday's violence between Christians and Muslims. "The Supreme Military Council decided to send all those who were arrested in yesterday's events, that is 190 people, to the Supreme Military Court...," the army said on its Facebook page.
Sectarian strife often flares in Egypt over conversions, family disputes and the construction of churches. Muslims and Christians made demonstrations of unity during the protests that overthrew Mubarak, but interfaith tensions have grown. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf canceled a tour of Gulf states to call an emergency cabinet meeting on Sunday morning to decide how to respond to the violence.
Egypt's highest religious authority, Al-Azhar, was also holding an emergency meeting to discuss the clashes. The governor of Giza province, where the church lies, said relatives of the dead and injured would receive compensation. Some Christians said the security forces had been too slow to disperse the crowd in front of the church and looked on as tension got out of hand. Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million population.
"God knows if the story of this convert girl is true or rumors but, regardless, she does not add to Islam or reduce Christianity," said Dina Mohamed, a housewife living near Saint Mary's. "Why are we focused on such matters when we are in a country that can barely stand on its feet."
Police who deserted the streets during the protests which led to Mubarak's downfall on February 11 have returned to their jobs, but many Egyptians say they feel less safe on the streets.
State media gave the new death toll and revised the number of injured to 186, with two in a critical condition in hospital. At least five were reported dead on Saturday and 75 injured.

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