- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2011

CAIRO | Hundreds of Christians and Muslims hurled stones at each other in downtown Cairo on Sunday, hours after Muslim mobs set fire to a church and a Christian-owned apartment building in a frenzy of violence that killed 12 people and injured more than 200.

The deepening religious clashes in military-ruled Egypt is exacerbating the lawlessness and disorder of the country’s bumpy transition to democracy, after three decades of autocratic rule under former President Hosni Mubarak was brought to an end in February.

Meanwhile, the government warned that it will not tolerate religious violence, which is seen as a threat to national security.

Authorities will “strike with an iron hand all those who seek to tamper with the nation’s security,” Justice Minister Abdel Aziz al-Gindi told reporters after Cabinet-level crisis talks Sunday.

On the streets of the capital, Muslim youths attacked a large crowd of Coptic Christian protesters, marching from the headquarters of Egypt’s general prosecutor to the state television building overlooking the Nile, Christian activist Bishoy Tamri said.

TV images showed both sides furiously throwing stones, including one Christian who held a large wooden cross in one hand while flinging rocks with the other.

Scores were injured, but an army unit that was securing the TV building did nothing to stop the violence, Mr. Tamri said.

Hours earlier, mobs of ultra-conservative Muslims attacked the Virgin Mary Church in the slum of Imbaba on the other side of the Nile. The attack was fueled by rumors that a Christian woman married to a Muslim man had been abducted by the church.

Residents said a separate mob of youths armed with knives, machetes and firebombs attacked an apartment building several blocks away.

“People were scared to come near them,” said resident Adel Mohammed, 29, who lives near the Virgin Mary Church. “They looked scary. They threw their firebombs at the church and set parts of it ablaze.”

The military deployed armored vehicles and dozens of troop carriers to cordon off a main street leading to the area. They halted traffic and turned away pedestrians.

Islamic clerics denounced the violence, sounding alarm bells at the escalating tension during the transitional period since Mr. Mubarak’s Feb. 11 ouster by a popular uprising.

“These events do not benefit either Muslim or Copts,” Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the sheik of al-Azhar, told the daily Al-Ahram.

Interfaith relationships are taboo in Egypt, where the Muslim majority and sizable Christian minority are both largely conservative. Such relationships are often the source of deadly clashes between the faiths.

During the 18-day uprising that ousted Mr. Mubarak, a rare spirit of brotherhood developed between Muslims and Christians. Each group protected the other during prayer sessions in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the revolution.

But in the months since, ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis have helped fuel a sharp rise in sectarian tensions.

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