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Deadly Clashes in Egypt Raise Specter of Sectarian Conflict

October 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Egypt struggled to return to calm today after deadly riots that involved Coptic Christians, Muslims and security forces. The weekend violence was the worst since the February uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Outrage and sadness filled Cairo’s main Coptic Christian cathedral today. Funerals were held for some of the 26 protesters killed last night. More than 500 others were wounded.

One mourner held up a bloodied T-shirt as the Coptic pope, Shenouda III, presided at Saint Mark’s Cathedral. The killings raised the specter of sectarian conflict in predominantly Muslim Egypt, where roughly one-tenth of the 80 million people are Coptic Christians.

Political activist and television host Gameela Ismail:

GAMEELA ISMAIL, political activist/television host: Everyone knows what happened yesterday. What’s more important is what will happen today and tomorrow and in the future. I do believe that, if we do clean up this wound that has been covered and closed for long years without the proper cure, if we properly cure this wound this time and close it forever.

RAY SUAREZ: Some 1,000 Christians gathered last night to protest the slow response of the military government to Muslim attacks on Coptic churches, but the peaceful protest quickly grew into a melee, as Christians, Muslims and security forces battled in the streets.

The clashes later spread to the world-renowned birthplace of the revolution, Tahrir Square. By this morning, the Corniche El Nil, the avenue that hugs the east bank of the Nile through central Cairo, was strewn with rocks and burned-out cars. Shopkeepers picked up the pieces.

In Washington, the Obama administration condemned the violence. A White House statement said: “The United States continues to believe that the rights of minorities, including Copts, must be respected. These tragic events shouldn’t stand in the way of timely elections and a continued transition to democracy that’s peaceful, just and inclusive.”

The timetable for that transition was recently muddled further when the ruling Military Council postponed next year’s presidential election until 2013. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for later next month.

And at a news conference, presidential candidate Amr Moussa tried to play down the prospect of Christian-Muslim violence amid the tumult of revolutionary Egypt.

AMR MOUSSA, Egyptian presidential candidate (through translator): Yesterday wasn’t a clash between Muslim and Christians, but it was led by thugs who want to stab the revolution and the political process. We must be careful so things do not get out of control. The situation is critical, and there are threats of civil war. And we hope we won’t reach that point.

RAY SUAREZ: But today brought scattered new clashes. In one instance, a motorist was dragged from his car, his offense unknown, and surrounded by a crowd. One man wielded a machete.

In the meantime, official investigations have been ordered to probe the violence, and the military has pledged stepped-up security.