Image: Egyptian Copts
Ben Curtis  /  AP file
Angry Egyptian Copts, one holding a large wooden cross, gather outside the Saints Church in the Sidi Bishr district of Alexandria in Egypt on Friday. The violence came after a knife-wielding assailant attacked worshippers at Coptic churches in the northern Mediterranean city of Alexandria during Mass, killing one person and wounding at least five.
updated 4/16/2006 11:24:02 AM ET 2006-04-16T15:24:02

Police fired live ammunition into the air and lobbed tear gas into rioting crowds of Christians and Muslims on Sunday in a third day of sectarian violence in Egypt’s second-largest city.

One Muslim reportedly died of wounds suffered a day earlier and dozens more people were wounded and arrested.

Police fought back against Coptic Christians, who were encircled by a security cordon around the Saints Church in downtown Alexandria after hurling stones and bottles from inside the police line. Fellow demonstrators tossed Molotov cocktails from the balconies of nearby buildings.

Police could be seen repeatedly beating a boy of about 12, who was among the crowd of Coptic young people who fled into the church, slamming the doors behind them, or dashed down narrow streets surrounding the church. Most of the protesters were between the ages of 12 and 25.

Later, a huge mob of what appeared to be Muslim protesters charged the police cordon from the other side.

Mustafa Mohammed Mustafa, a Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian, said a 24-year-old Muslim died early Sunday of wounds from a beating by Christians during rioting Saturday.

The Christian protesters behind the police cordon repeatedly surged against it from the front of the church, and by late afternoon they were hurling rocks and bottles at security troops as others tossed firebombs from surrounding apartment balconies.

Sirens blared as ambulances raced toward the scene. Armored police vehicles surrounded the church as tear gas fumes sent protesters fleeing down narrow streets in the neighborhood.

Earlier Sunday, police officials said 43 people had been wounded in clashes near the church and 50 others were arrested as religious leaders and politicians sought to ease sectarian tensions in the aftermath of a series of weekend attacks on Coptic churches. The police spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

About 2,000 riot police had cordoned off the front of the Saints Church but were unable to prevent the late-afternoon melee by some 200 young men milling around church grounds after services ended.  They carried wooden crosses, clubs and machetes.

At least 22 people were wounded in clashes in the Mediterranean city Saturday, and 15 people were arrested in the fighting that police said was instigated by “fanatics.”

Security forces also used tear gas to put down the Saturday violence, which erupted among several hundred Coptic Christians and Muslims at the end of the funeral procession for Nushi Atta Girgis, 78, who was slain Friday outside the Saints Church in the Sidi Bishr district.

Officials said more security forces were sent to the city to maintain calm.

The violence apparently was prompted by knife attacks that wounded as many as 16 people at three churches in Alexandria on Friday. Although it was Good Friday for many of the world’s Christians, the Copts and other Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Easter next week.

Police said Alexandria Gov. Mohammad Abdel Salam Mahgoub and local politicians were trying to calm the situation with the help of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood.

Coptic Christians are 10 percent of Egypt’s 73 million population and generally live in peace with the Muslim majority, though occasional sectarian clashes occur.

Most recently, Muslim militants attacked churches in the Moharrem Bek area of Alexandria to protest distribution of a DVD they deemed offensive to Islam. Four people were killed in weeklong riots.

Christians complain that they suffer job discrimination, particularly in the high ranks of the civil service, where positions such as general, provincial governor and faculty head are almost invariably held by Muslims.

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