By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 3:27 AM
CAIRO - On the banks of the Nile, in the middle of a roiling protest Wednesday by hundreds of chanting Christians, a man raised a Koran in one hand and a wooden cross in the other. "I came here because we don't want sectarian strife," said Ahmed Moustafa, a 37-year-old Muslim. "Muslims and Christians are united."
But such idealism might be waning as Egyptians confront the worst outbreak of religious violence since Hosni Mubarak was swept out of power Feb. 11. The deaths of 13 people in clashes in Cairo between Muslims and Christians late Tuesday have prompted calls for religious tolerance and raised the prospect of a deepening sectarian divide after a post-revolution honeymoon period.
Street battles broke out after Coptic Christians set up roadblocks in major arteries to protest the destruction of one of their churches. Security is scant in this metropolis of 18 million, where the military-controlled government is still groping to find a way to tamp down crime with no functioning police force.
Although clashes between Muslims and Christians are not new in Egypt, they often take place far from the capital. That the overnight violence continued for hours near the heart of Cairo is bound to add to concerns among Christians that weeks of tumult in Egypt have left them particularly vulnerable in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim.
The prospect that political Islamists might gain strength in Egypt is seen among Copts as particularly worrying, after three decades in which many had come to regard Mubarak's secular regime as a kind of protector.
Some witnesses said the Egyptian army had stood by for as long as four hours without intervening in the fighting. Officials said that all of those who were killed died of gunshot wounds and that 140 others were injured. Copts said that all of the victims were Christian adherents, but other reports said that as many as five Muslims were killed.
A top Coptic leader, Father Saleeb Metta Sawiris, said Wednesday that church officials were seeking to defuse the conflict and prevent escalation.
Thousands of Copts have been protesting here in recent days in various locations to demand the rebuilding of a destroyed church in the provincial town of Sol, south of the city; punishment of the perpetrators; and overall better treatment. The Copts are a largely Orthodox Christian group and make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million people; they have long complained of discrimination, and many are consigned to menial jobs.
The church was destroyed last week by arson and, some said, hammer-wielding Muslims. It happened after fighting between Copts and Muslims left two dead after a feud between the families of a Christian man and a Muslim woman who were having a romantic relationship.
The year began with religious violence - 21 people died when a suicide bomber blew himself up as Copt worshipers left a church after midnight on New Year's in Alexandria.
On Wednesday, soldiers manned downtown checkpoints and carried out cursory pat-downs for weapons as hundreds of demonstrators streamed into a rally in front of the state TV building on the Nile, where Copts say they will stay until their church is rebuilt as promised by the transitional government.
"We're fed up with promises. We want action," said Osama Ezet, 45, who delivers goods on a donkey-drawn cart.
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 TV program. Meanwhile, leaders of youth and political factions urged followers to join a protest Friday under the slogan "No to sectarian strife."
"I am surprised at the high number of people killed in the clash," said Mustafa Kamel El Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo University and a longtime democracy advocate. "The murders are disturbing. . . . It is important for all the political figures to take action on this situation."
For some, the deaths might have served as a wake-up call, as did an episode Tuesday when a planned women's rights march devolved into a melee in which several women were sexually assaulted by men in Tahrir Square, site of the largely peaceful democratic uprising. On Wednesday, stone-throwing erupted in the square in clashes between those who continue to use it as a staging ground to air grievances and those who want all demonstrations to stop.
"Unfortunately, our armed forces are not trained to do police operations," El Sayed said. "The army will not be the solution, but I think their presence could be greater to deter people."
Later, local media reported that club-wielding soldiers dispersed protesters and dismantled the tent city they'd erected there.
Special correspondents Muhammad Mansour and Sherine Bayoumi contributed to this report.