Egypt said on Thursday it would launch a review of disputed permits for churches in a bid to head off sectarian violence, as Prime Minister Essam Sharaf offered Pope Shenouda III condolences, days after 25 people were killed at a demonstration by Christians over one such dispute.
Sunday’s violence, in front of the state television building, also known as Maspero, was the worst since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February. It has given rise to fears of widening sectarian unrest.
Christian activists say the deaths were caused by security forces who reacted with disproportionate force, driving into the crowd after “thugs” attacked protesters, according to Reuters.
Earlier Thursday, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf visited Pope Shenouda III to offer condolences for those killed during the Coptic protest Sunday, an Egyptian daily reported.
Sharaf’s visit to the pope at his Abbasseya residence lasted nearly 15 minutes, al-Masry al-Youm reported.
In their meeting, Sharaf and Shenouda discussed the consequences of the Maspero events, the reasons behind sectarian strife and how to prevent future violence, sources added. Shenouda also emphasized that the Coptic demonstration on Sunday “was peaceful, and [the protesters] weren’t armed.”
Shenouda demanded rapid approval of a unified law for building places of worship and legal settlements for churches that have already been built illegally.
Egypt’s military rulers blamed Christian protesters and “enemies of the revolution” on Wednesday for triggering the clashes, The Associated Press reported.
At a lengthy news conference to present their version of the events, generals from the Supreme Council of Armed Forces showed footage of priests and a Coptic Christian activist they accused of “instigating” the violence on Sunday night with calls for demonstrations and storming the state television building. He accused protesters of “savage” attacks on the military.
Many of those killed were crushed when armored military vehicles sped through crowds of protesters and ran them over. Other victims had gunshot wounds.
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people, say Islamists have been using disputes over the legal status of some church buildings to provoke hostility.
The Justice Ministry was charged with “forming a committee to review all the incidents that occurred in the past few months concerning disputes over churches ... to identify those responsible and take appropriate action,” Information Minister Osama Heikal said in a statement on state television.
He referred to cases where churches had been attacked or damaged, including one in Helwan near Cairo in March and another in the capital.
The government would “settle the situation of unlicensed churches,” he said. He did not give details but the comment suggested that the aim was to legalize churches in dispute, which Christians have demanded, according to AFP.
Christians have long complained of discrimination in Egypt, citing rules that they say make it more difficult to build a church than a mosque. They say they fear a worsening of sectarian violence because of the emergence of Islamist groups that were suppressed under Mubarak.
In Sunday’s protest, Christians who took to the streets accused Muslims of partially demolishing a church in Aswan province at the end of September. Muslims in the village say the building did not have a license, but deny attacking it.
Khaled Abdel-Hamid, a member of the Revolution Youth Coalition, reacted to the military’s account by saying: “Frankly, the council is belittling people’s intelligence,” he said according to AP.
“These are blatant lies. The witnesses and the video clips prove that there was monstrous suppression by the army of a peaceful protest,” he added. “So a soldier is given an excuse for killings, while civilians are to blame.”
The military’s explanation aimed clearly to draw sympathy for the troops, particularly with those Egyptians who have grown weary of the daily disruptions to life and the economic hardships that the uprising has brought.
According to forensic reports for the slain protesters, a third of victims were killed by being run over by the armored vehicles, while two-thirds were shot with live ammunition. At least 20 of the 25 killed were Christians.
The military showed video of the events including scenes of a protester hurling a heavy stone at soldiers inside an armored vehicle and others beating up soldiers. Another showed a bloody soldier being carried away on a stretcher. The military has not said how many soldiers died, but security officials put the number at three.