Sunday’s violence followed a buildup of tensions sparked by a mob attack on a newly built church in the southern Egypt town of Edfu on Sept. 30. The construction or repair of churches is a major source of sectarian tension in Egypt. Some local Muslims claimed that the construction of the Edfu church was illegal, while church officials said that they had permission from authorities to replace an old church with a new one.
Remarks by the local governor that the church was illegal fueled Coptic anger and kicked off small protests by Christians, first in the provincial capital of Aswan and then in Cairo.
A government fact-finding mission confirmed that the Christians had the right to build a church, and also supported the governor’s removal. The mission released its report earlier this month but no action was taken.
The Coptic church announced three days mourning, fasting and prayers as Christians’ sense of injustice hit a new high. One priest said that the fast was a means of showing loss of confidence in the authorities. He said such a measure had not been invoked by the church since former President Anwar Sadat’s program of Islamizing laws during the 1970s.
Some Muslims said they would join the Christians in their fast in solidarity. A campaign named “Fast4Egypt” spread on social networking sites.
The outcry over the deaths may push Egypt’s military rulers to address some Coptic grievances. The Cabinet has already announced it would issue a new law regulating houses of worship in two weeks, and that the law would criminalize religious discrimination.
In another apparent overture to Copts, authorities on Monday executed Hamam al-Kamouni, who was convicted and sentenced to death for shooting dead seven Christians in Christmas Eve in 2010 in Nagaa Hammadi, a town 290 miles (460 kilometers) south of Cairo.