CAIRO (AP) — A court in southern Egypt on Sunday convicted and sentenced to death a Muslim man for his part in a drive-by shooting outside a church a year ago that killed six Coptic Christians and a Muslim guard, judicial officials said.
Egypt’s government is scrambling to contain Christian anger in the country after a suicide bombing at another church on Jan. 1 that killed 21 worshippers and left the community outraged.
Next month, the court will announce verdicts for the other two defendants in the drive-by shooting, a case that had languished in the courts for the past year, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share the information with the media.
The January 2010 attack in the southern town of Nag Hamadi took place as worshippers were leaving the church after Coptic Christmas Eve Mass. It is believed to have been in retaliation for accusations that a local Christian man raped a Muslim girl.
Egypt’s Orthodox Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7.
Sunday’s hearing was held in the southern city of Qena, which is close to Nag Hamadi, amid tight security, with hundreds of riot policemen sealing off roads leading to the courthouse.
Mohammed Ahmed Hassanein, also known by the alias Hammam al-Kamouni, broke down on hearing the sentence read out by presiding Judge Mohammed Fahmy Abdul-Maugoud.
“I am a victim; I did not do it,” screamed Hassanein, whose trial lasted 11 months. He was convicted of first-degree murder and terror-related charges.
The severity of his sentence was likely meant to appease Egypt’s Christians, who have been complaining that criminal cases involving Muslims attacking members of their community rarely result in swift justice.
They also charge that police often turn a blind eye to incidents of discrimination or violence against them. Last week, an off-duty police officer walked onto a train in southern Egypt and shot six Christians, killing a 71-year-old man, further exacerbating tensions with the country’s largest minority.
The government denies any discrimination against the Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s estimated 80 million people.
In a thinly veiled reference to the Christian complaints about the judicial system, President Hosni Mubarak last week told senior judges that “slow justice” breeds bitterness among Egyptians, urging them to speed up trials.
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