U.S. President Barack Obama is “deeply concerned” about violence in Egypt, the White House said Monday, calling for minority Copts to be protected and stressing the need for timely elections.
White House spokesman Jay Carney issued a statement after clashes in Cairo killed 25 people, mostly Coptic Christians and injured more than 300, sparking fears of widespread sectarian unrest.
“The president is deeply concerned about the violence in Egypt that has led to a tragic loss of life among demonstrators and security forces,” Carney said, expressing condolences to loved ones of the dead and injured.
“Now is a time for restraint on all sides so that Egyptians can move forward together to forge a strong and united Egypt.
“As the Egyptian people shape their future, the United States continues to believe that the rights of minorities –including Copts – must be respected, and that all people have the universal rights of peaceful protest and religious freedom.”
Carney noted the call for an investigation by Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and called on all parties to refrain from violence.
“These tragic events should not stand in the way of timely elections and a continued transition to democracy that is peaceful, just and inclusive,” Carney said.
Meanwhile, women in Cairo’s Coptic hospital wailed for their dead as Christians accused Egypt’s generals of failing to protect them from strict Islamists.
“My brother, my brother, they killed my brother,” screamed one woman in black next to the hospital morgue where many of the dead from Sunday night’s clashes were brought. She leant on her weeping mother, surrounded by other women in the corridor.
Military police raced armored vehicles into a crowd of Christians who were protesting over an attack on the church in southern Egypt and demanding that Aswan governor Mostafa al-Sayed be dismissed for failing to protect it.
Christians have long grumbled about discrimination by the state and tensions with the majority Muslims have simmered. But violence has become more common with the rise of strict Salafist and other Islamist groups which Mubarak had repressed.
“Why didn’t they do this with the Salafists or the Muslim Brotherhood when they organize protests? This is not my country anymore,” said Alfred Younan, speaking near the hospital.
Christians, and some Muslim activists, said the army had used excessive force. Protesters pelted military police with stones, petrol bombs and set light to army and other vehicles in the worst violence since Hosni Mubarak was ousted on Feb 11.
The military-backed government says it does not discriminate and has promised to address Christian concerns.
But for many Christians, Sunday’s bloodshed was proof that the army council led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi was ignoring the demands of a community which makes up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people.
“Tantawi you traitor, the blood of Copts is not cheap,” relatives and other Christians chanted outside the hospital. Others called: “The people want the toppling of Tantawi.”
Christian activists said the army used armoured vehicles to disperse protesters at Maspero, an area around the state television building, after other tactics failed. They described seeing corpses that had been crushed under the vehicles.
“Why did the army hit our children? They didn’t do it with those in Tahrir Square. Why is the army doing this?” said Tahany, a Christian woman who would not give her full name.
State television said three soldiers were among the dead.
‘Vehicles ran through us’
The scenes were a stark contrast to the army’s handling of protests early this year in Tahrir, the focus of anti-Mubarak demonstrations, when troops stood by even when violence raged.
Since then, however, military police have clashed with some demonstrators, including those who attacked the Israeli embassy.
“When we approached Maspero, the army fired upon us and their vehicles ran through us,” said Maged Adel, who said his friend’s father was wounded in the charge. He said protesters responded by hurling stones.
The army council called for a swift investigation and said it would exert every effort to ensure security.
The Coptic demonstration was in response to the partial demolition of a church last month in Aswan. Christians blamed that attack on Muslims who they said were acting after they heard the Christian building did not have authorisation.
It touches a raw nerve for Christians, who complain about laws they say make it easier to build mosques than churches. It is the latest of several attacks on churches blamed on those who follow a strict interpretation of Islam.
Christians say Prime Minister Essam Sharaf promised months ago to push through a law giving equal treatment for building all places of worship, but say the pledge has been neglected.
“The real problem is not mainly the Salafists or fundamentalist Islamists as we know they are there and we know they are attacking Copts and churches all the time,” said Youssef Sidhom, editor of Orthodox Coptic newspaper al-Watani.
“The problem is the severe reluctance of the cabinet and the authorities to enforce the rule of law and protect the Copts. The main demand of demonstrators (on Sunday) was that the authorities should arrest the criminals,” he said.
Egypt’s Orthodox Coptic Pope Shenouda echoed this in a statement expressing “horror” at the clashes, adding: “Problems are repeated without accountability for perpetrators ... or solving the issue at its root.”
He called on Christians to fast for three days in the hope that peace would return.
Many Muslim activists and politicians backed calls to address the concerns of Copts.
“The absence of the rule of law is the reason behind what happened. We have been demanding the discharge of the Aswan governor, but they ignored us and this is the result,” said Shady el-Ghazaly Harb from the Revolution Youth Coalition.
“Copts’ anger is very understandable,” he said.