As Egypt plans to hold parliamentary elections November 28 and rebuild its government following the events of the Arab Spring, a peaceful Christian-led protest turned into a bloody scene Sunday, leaving 25 to 35 people dead and 300 to perhaps 500 injured. The dead are believed to be mostly Christians.
Videos have shown that military police went to stop the protest, shooting, releasing tear gas, beating people with batons, and running people over with their trucks. Protestors maintain they had no weapons and were attacked by police and thugs, although early reports from Egypt's liberal media stated the protestors started the brutality and army personnel were killed (no army members were listed in the fatalities).
Coptic Christians have led protests in the months following the Arab Spring. Egyptian believers—the country's minority at 10 percent—have faced hindrances in society. After President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, more attacks against churches and Christian communities have occurred without repercussion, and some Islamists have been vocal about wanting Copts to have different rights than Muslims under the new government.
Coptic Christians have been frustrated with the repeated attacks and lack of justice, and with the intolerance and poor treatment they encounter because they are not Muslims.
What happened on Sunday was not the first time the military and others have used force against a peaceful Coptic protest, although it was the most violent. Last week, a sit-in was disrupted when the military fired their guns in order to chase protestors away from the National Television and Radio building (Maspero).
That protest was led by the Maspero Youth Union and Copts Without Borders (which dropped out during the march and did not continue to the sit-in). The Maspero Youth Union is made up of Christians who are trying to stop religious persecution by getting involved in politics instead of trying to "change things simply by praying and singing," as Fadi Philip told blogger Jayson Casper. There are Muslim members within the group as well.
Maspero Youth Union has been leading protests for months in order to improve the lives of Christians. They have held sit-ins in order to get the government to implement new policies, such as allowing Christians to open new churches and punishing people who have incited violence against Christians.
Casper blogged about what he saw when he first arrived at the metro station close to Tahrir Square on Sunday night. He ran into a group of shaken people whom he believes were Copts: "This group stated with vehemence they had been attacked by the army, emphasizing it was the army, and not simple thugs. People had been shot and armored vehicles had run over protestors as they swerved through the crowd. Some claimed there were snipers. Confusion reigned, and it was hard to know what was happening."
He was unable to get too close to the scene of the protest, but wrote that "it was impossible to tell Muslim from Christian, protestor from bystander from 'thug.' Who was committing violence, and who was suffering it, was impossible to say."
Casper was able to talk with a member of the Maspero Youth Union, who said that 10,000 Copts and Muslims had been interrupted during their march by thugs he believed the army had sent. The man said the plan was to leave at 8 p.m. and not engage in a sit-in, but they were attacked "immediately" after arriving at Maspero. At least one member of the Maspero Youth Union, Michael Mossad, was killed.
On his Facebook page, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf wrote, "What took place was not a confrontation between Muslims and Christians but an attempt to create chaos and ignite sectarian sedition. . . . I urge all children of the nation who are keen for its future to answer those who call for sectarian sedition. This is a fire which will consume us all, without distinction." Coptic and Muslim leaders have been called to meet together by the "Family House," an anti-sectarian project that was started after the New Year's Eve church bombing in Alexandria. The meeting will attempt to create a plan to address the event and its aftermath.
Meanwhile, thousands mourn the victims and protest the military's actions. Through Twitter, activists and journalists claim that hospitals are trying to cover up the truth of what happened by refusing to release the victims' bodies to their families until the families sign papers stating the victim died from fractures or burns, not gunshots. Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Christians announced that Tuesday would mark the beginning of three days of mourning, praying, and fasting as funerals begin; these are expected to spark more protests.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated as more information has come in.
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Previous coverage of Egypt includes:
Behind Egypt's Revolution | Away from news cameras, Christian, Muslim youth rediscover common ground. (March 7, 2011)
Do Egypt's Evangelicals Get Along with the Coptic Orthodox? | More than they used to, say observers and insiders. (February 14, 2011)
Egypt's Christians After Mubarak | They were protesting a church attack when the Tahrir Square demonstrations began. Political change likely won't undo deep tensions with Muslims. (February 11, 2011)