An Egyptian security officer calls an ambulance as an injured worker lies on the ground late Wednesday outside the cathedral in the Abbasiya district in Cairo. Thousands of Christians took over the Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Egypt's capital, hurling stones at riot police in a protest over a woman allegedly forced to convert to Islam.
updated 12/8/2004 10:49:44 PM ET 2004-12-09T03:49:44

Several thousand Christians who packed a cathedral compound in the Egyptian capital hurled stones at riot police Wednesday to protest a woman’s alleged forced conversion to Islam. At least 30 people were injured.

The injured included 21 police officers. Some policemen were seen wiping blood from their heads in the streets outside the compound of the Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Cairo’s Abbasiya district.

Police threw the rocks back over the compound wall and an Associated Press reporter saw about 10 injured people, including a priest, inside the compound. The police sealed off the compound by parking some 40 trucks around its walls and closing adjacent roads.

Protests began Sunday at the cathedral as word spread that the wife of a Coptic priest in Abou al-Matameer, a town 84 miles north of Cairo, was forced by her Muslim boss in the civil service to convert.

A security official has said the 47-year-old woman, Wafaa Constantine, was living in a Muslim household in Cairo and had become a Muslim of her own free will.

Some of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority said Constantine was kidnapped and taken to Cairo with the complicity of local authorities.

Potential for friction
The disputed case highlights the potential for friction between Egypt’s Muslim majority and Christian minority. The Copts are an estimated 10 percent of the nation’s 70 million people.

On Wednesday night, a brother-in-law of Constantine entered the compound and told protesters through a loudspeaker that the woman had returned home.

“My brothers and sisters: my brother just told me that she arrived in a safe place and she is in good condition,” Meshiha Maawad said.

The protesters clapped and whistled but refused to leave. They demanded that Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, speak to them. The pope has offices in the compound.

An assistant, Bishop Yoanas, told the crowd the leader left the compound because he was “upset” that authorities delayed Constantine’s return.

“We thank the government for bringing her to us,” the bishop said. “But because of the delay, Pope Shenouda, who waited four hours for her return, was not happy and he left.”

Some protesters said they would not leave the compound until they saw Constantine herself. But, as the night wore on, many protesters did leave.

The victims of the rioting included young priest Matyas Abdel Maseh. Leaning against a wall for support with his head bandaged, he said he was hit by a stone thrown by the police as he tried to stop demonstrators from getting too close to the compound’s gates.

Accusations an annual rite
“The government is attacking Christians,” Maseh said. “The army outside the gates is attacking us with stones.”

Accusations of forced conversion surface every year in Egypt.

The editor of the Coptic newspaper Watani, Youssef Sidhom, accused the government and local authorities of being reluctant to investigate and prosecute such cases.

“Such injustice has created a very sensitive situation, like the one we are witnessing now,” Sidhom told The AP in a phone interview. “What kind of a religion is it that accepts people who have been forced to believe in it?”

Copts generally live in peace with their Muslim neighbors, but they are underrepresented in the upper ranks of the civil service. They complain of discrimination in finding jobs and restrictions on building churches.

During an Islamic insurrection in the 1990s, Muslim militants occasionally attacked Copts. In 2000, clashes broke out among Copts and Muslims in several adjacent villages in the southern province of Sohag, leading to 23 deaths. All but two were Copts.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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