Sectarian tension heightened on Friday in a small Egyptian town as police fired tear gas to disperse Muslims throwing stones at a Coptic church in anger over the inter-faith relationship alleged between an Egyptian Muslim college student and a Coptic Christian man, a security official and priest said.
The Protesters accuse Saint Girgis Church of helping Rana Al Shazli, 21, who is believed to have converted to Christianity, flee to Turkey with a Coptic Christian man.
The alleged romance has been fuelling sectarian tension for nearly two months in Wasta, a rural town in Beni Suef province, about 95km south of Cairo, the Egyptian capital.
Muslims have attacked churches there and forced Christians to close their shops for nearly eight days last month and members of the Christian man’s family have been arrested, including his mother and father, after a prosecutor accused them of collaborating in hiding the woman. The woman’s family issued an ultimatum for the church to bring her back early this month, but when it didn’t, fresh violence erupted.
Ultraconservative Salafists on Friday distributed flyers accusing the church of “proselytising Christianity,” according to a copy of the flyer posted on a social networking site. Residents were enjoined to rally inside a mosque located metres from the church to “rescue a Muslim soul and bring her back from the deviant path.”
Father Bishoy Youssuf of the church said he heard loudspeakers from the adjacent mosque calling on worshippers to join a march to the church for the sake of the girl. He said churches in Wasta had been forewarned about “threats to attack churches” and scheduled early morning masses that would be finished before Friday prayers at the mosque.
“God protect us,” he said. “We have nothing to do with this whole story”.
Protesters hurled stones at security forces that had cordoned off streets leading to the church, following earlier threats, and this led to clashes, with police firing tear gas.
Police arrested five people, including the girl’s uncle. Two people were injured by gunshots and others suffered breathing problems from the tear gas, according to the security official at the scene.