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Christian killed in clashes over Egyptian church

Image: Egyptian Christians throw stones against police during a riot
Angry Egyptian Christians throw stones against police in Cairo during a Wednesday riot which left one one person dead. Authorities halted construction on a church, claiming the local Christian community had violated a building permit, sparking outrage from the minority group.AP
/ Source: news services

One man died and dozens were wounded when hundreds of Christians clashed with police in Cairo Wednesday after construction work on a church was halted , witnesses and security sources said.

According to Egypt's official Middle East News Agency, a bullet hit a Christian in his thigh and he died shortly after arriving at a nearby hospital.

Police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and beat back rioters who threw stones at officers and attempted storm the local governor's offices in Giza.

Egyptian security officials said the riots at governor's headquarters followed earlier clashes outside the half-built Church of the Virgin Mary and Saint Michael Archangel in Giza's Omraniya neighborhood in the early hours of the morning. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the media.

The protesters were angry after authorities halted construction on the church, claiming Christian officials had violated a building permit. Police stopped trucks loaded with construction material from entering the site.

"We will build it, we will build it," chanted some of the protesters near the unfinished church.

A few hours later, some 700 Christians headed to governor's headquarters and clashed with hundreds of anti-riot police until they were dispersed with tear gas.

There were conflicting figures for the numbers of injuries. The Associated Press said at least 33 people were hurt, adding that authorities had arrested 93 people. But, citing security and medical sources, Reuters reported that as many as 45 police and protestors sustained injuries.

Building tensions
Giza Governor Gen. Sayyed Abdel Aziz told the official news agency that rioters had tried and failed to storm his headquarters.

Abdel Aziz said the Christians appeared to have used a permit for a social center to build a church.

"When we noticed indications that it was turning into a church, we told the church authorities to halt construction because a church would require a different license," he said.

The Christian Coptic community says authorities in Egypt are reluctant to approve permits to build churches, which they say they need to accommodate growing numbers of worshippers.

One way to evade the rules is to obtain permits for Christian service centers, which they then turn to churches.

"I am completely willing to help Christian leaders get the permit for a church, but they have to stop turning it into a church without authorization," Abdel Aziz told the state news agency.

Medhat Kalada, head of the Geneva-based United Copts organization, said that the government had a "double-standard" with complicated procedures needed for the construction of the churches in comparison to the relative ease in building mosques.

"The government is discriminating against Christians when it comes to building churches," he said. The government insists Christians enjoy the same rights as Muslims.

Church officials were unavailable for comment.

'All this because of a church'Christians said they had the right permit and would continue to build, even without machinery.

"They wouldn't allow heavy equipment through, so the Christians brought in small cement-mixers," said George Helmy, 55, who lives near the site of the three-story domed structure.

Scores of police with shields and batons sealed off the area and fired tear gas at protesters. Some police threw rocks back.

"Look, this is our government throwing rocks at us. All this because of a church," said 30-year-old Samuel Ibrahim, pointing to officers lobbing stones towards the demonstrators.

Stones were seen strewn across roads that had been blocked to traffic.

About 15 security vehicles surrounded the area around the church and there was heavy security in the neighborhood even after the clashes had subsided.

Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million.

Christians generally live in peace with the Muslim majority but there are occasional flare-ups of tension and violence.

Human rights groups say attacks on Copts are on the rise, underscoring the government's failure to address chronic sectarian strains in a society where religious radicalism is gaining ground.

A human rights group, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, reported in April that the number of violent sectarian incidents had risen to 53 in 2009 from 24 in 2008, saying many cases had been insufficiently investigated or ignored.