By Richard N. Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 11:53 AM
CAIRO - Thirteen people died in overnight clashes between Christians and Muslims in the worst outbreak of sectarian violence in Egypt since last month's ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, officials reported Wednesday.
The religious rioting stirred fears among some political and civic leaders that the country's post-revolutionary unity could be rapidly deteriorating.
The Health Ministry said about 140 people were injured in the fighting. The clashes broke out after about 2,000 Coptic Christians blocked a main highway south of Cairo as part of protests to demand the rebuilding of a village church that was torched in earlier sectarian violence in Helwan province about 20 miles south of the capital.
All those killed Tuesday were Christians, according to Bishop Morcos, a spokesman for the Egyptian Copts, but his account could not be independently confirmed. The worst casualties were inflicted by gunfire and molotov cocktails, he said.
Security and hospital officials said all 13 fatalities were caused by gunshot wounds, the Associated Press reported, but it was not immediately clear who was firing or how many people from each side were shot during the clashes, which lasted about four hours.
The deaths led to pleas for tolerance from religious and civic leaders.
"I call upon Muslims and Christians to avoid incitement and to place more weight on national love," Amr Khaled, an Islamic cleric, said in a phone call to a popular Egyptian television program. Meanwhile, leaders of various youth and political factions urged followers to join a protest on Friday under the slogan, "No to sectarian strife."
But protests continued to sow havoc Wednesday morning in downtown Cairo. Stone-throwing erupted in clashes between Egyptians who continue to use the city's central Tahrir Square as a staging ground to air grievances, and those who want all demonstrations to stop.
The latest sectarian violence was stoked last Friday when a church was set on fire after clashes between Copts and Muslims left two dead. The bloodshed reportedly resulted from a feud between the families of a Christian man and a Muslim woman who were having a relationship.
The year began with religious violence: 21 people died when a suspected suicide bomber blew himself up as Copt worshipers left a church after midnight on New Year's Day in Alexandria.
A week later, an off-duty policeman boarded a train and opened fire, killing a 71-year-old Christian man and wounding his wife and four other people, AP said.
Angry over the attacks, a crowd of several hundred Christians has been protesting for days outside the state television building in Cairo. The country's new prime minister, Essam Sharaf, has met with them to try to reassure Egypt's Christian community that his interim government would not discriminate against them, AP reported.
Copts and other Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population of more than 80 million people and constitute the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Muslims, mostly Sunnis, account for about 90 percent of the Egyptian population.
Special correspondents Muhammad Mansour and Sherine Bayoumi contributed to this report.