CAIRO: A Coptic citizen died on Wednesday and tens were wounded in clashes with security forces after Al-Omraneya’s district office halted the construction of a church annex.
Clashes erupted early Wednesday between security and Copts protesting in front of the Mar Girguis Church after Al-Omraneya’s district administration’s decision not to allow the Copts to turn a community center being built next to the Virgin Mary and Archangel Michael church into a chapel.
The authorities said the Copts had violated their building license.
“They had previously been ordered to cease construction due to violations of building safety code standards, and because they were attempting to illegally transform the building into a church for the conduct of religious services,” the Ministry of Information’s press center said in a statement.
The situation has been escalating for three days, the statement said.
Witnesses said police arrested construction workers.
Several hundred people clashed sporadically with police Wednesday morning in separate locations in the Talebiya district of Cairo’s Giza governorate, with demonstrators throwing stones and Molotov cocktails.
Security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, leaving Makarious Gad Shaker, 19, dead and tens injured. The Ministry of Information said demonstrators ignored police requests to cease the violence.
The Deputy-Director of the Giza Governorate and the Commander of Giza Governorate Central Security were among the injured.
The official MENA news agency said more than 3,000 people had taken part in the protests.
Police arrested 93 Copts and a team of the prosecutors went to the scene for investigations. Police closed down the area using steel barriers, armored vehicles and riot-fighting forces.
Dozens of rioters stormed the Giza Governorate building in El-Haram Street, destroying the building’s wall.
Others rallied in front of Al-Omraneya’s district administration building, throwing rocks and detaining employees to protest the decision of the head of the district’s office, General Mohamed Hassan Hamouda, to stop the construction.
A source inside Om El-Masreyyen Hospital told Daily News Egypt that the condition of the injured is stable. Injuries are mostly fractures, bruises, and a gunshot wound.
"The forensic doctor started examining the dead body of Shaker to issue the medical report that will state the cause of death," the source said, noting that the young man died before reaching the hospital.
Father Mina, from a church near the proposed new chapel, said Shaker was shot in the neck during one of the demonstrations in front of the governorate headquarters in the morning.
"People here feel very discriminated against. We can’t build the church — why are they stopping us?" asked Samih Rashid.
"Every street has a mosque, every church has a mosque next to it," he complained.
More than 20 Muslim residents of Talebiya chanting anti-Coptic slogans threw rocks at demonstrators under a bridge on the Ring Road where police had fired tear gas at protesters.
The Coptic protesters chanted back: "Long live the crescent alongside the crucifix," in reference to the Islamic and Christian symbols.
Riot police were later deployed to hold back the Muslims, who were shouting: "In this district there will never be a church. We will not allow it."
One of the Coptic demonstrators complained: "This is the way the government starts sectarian strife."
"With our blood and with our souls, we will sacrifice our lives for you, oh cross," the crowd chanted.
Coptic lawyer and head of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organization Naguib Gobrael described the police’s use of violence against Copts as "criminal."
Gobrael told Daily News Egypt that when some Copts stormed the governorate building, it was a natural reaction to the police’s use of violence against them at 6 am. He said Central Security armored vehicles stormed the grounds of the Al-Omraneya Church early morning, using rubber bullets, in violation of international human rights.
Gobrael confirmed that he will file a complaint to the Prosecutor General to start investigating the issue.
Father Mina blamed legal restrictions for the clashes. "This has led to something dangerous. It turned into a fight between Muslims and Copts."
Non-Muslims are required to obtain a presidential decree to build new religious buildings and must satisfy numerous conditions before permission is granted, in contrast to the facilitated process by which mosques are built.
Families of the injured Copts gathered in front of the hospital, where they were prevented from seeing them. The families said that they only wanted to see their children and give them food and their personal belongings.
They confirmed that they will not leave before they are assured about their safety.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to ease the tension, tens of Muslim citizens living in the neighborhood organized a rally in Al-Ekhlas Street near the Ring Road and where the church lies, calling for what they called "cross and crescent unity."
Participants in the rally called for restoring calm between Copts and security forces.
According to the Ministry of Information, the gathering was eventually dispersed in coordination with senior officials representing the Coptic Patriachate. The Ring Road was also re-opened for traffic. –Additional reporting by AFP
Angry Egyptian Copts march as they raise a cross during a riot, which left one person dead, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010. (AP Photo)
Demonstrators burn a tyre during deadly clashes with Egyptian police. (AFP Photo/Khaled Desouki)
Demonstrators throw stones against police during the Nov. 24 riot. (AP Photo)