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Sectarian Clashes Hurt Egypt's Transition

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The military government of Egypt has promised a crackdown to prevent more religiously motivated violence. Over the weekend in Cairo, violence erupted between Muslims and Coptic Christians, who form somewhat less than 10 percent of the population of Egypt. At least a dozen people were killed in this violence. Hundreds more were injured. And NPR's Martin Kaste is covering the story in Cairo.

Hi, Martin.

MARTIN KASTE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What happened?

KASTE: Well, this seems to have come out of an unsubstantiated rumor that was circulating on Saturday that a Christian woman who had converted to Islam in order to get married had been kidnapped by the Christian community and was being held against her will in one of the Coptic churches here in Cairo.

INSKEEP: So the rumor was that the Coptic Christians didn't want her to convert and they grabbed her. That was the unsubstantiated rumor that started all this?

KASTE: Exactly. Yes.

INSKEEP: OK. Go on.

KASTE: And so there's this idea that spreads that she's being held in the church. The two groups sort of confront each other. Both groups grow. And at some point on Saturday evening, things got violent very quickly.

I talked to some of the people who were injured there, a boy who was shot in the leg. He said it was just mayhem. You really couldn't tell one side from the other after a while. He talked about seeing groups of Coptic Christians with automatic weapons. He says they're the ones who shot him. He claims he wasn't even involved in the melee.

When all was said and done, a dozen or so buildings had been burned or partially burned and two churches were burned or partially burned. And the whole neighborhood has been very tense ever since. The military moved in and closed off the street in front of the church. There's a curfew. And people are just very upset in Beiba, a neighborhood which is right on the edge of Cairo.

INSKEEP: Can I just mention, Martin, that this is a city in which Christians and Muslims protested together to bring down the government of Hosni Mubarak. There were dramatic occasions on which Christians protected Muslims while they prayed in Tahrir Square, and yet there have been several deadly outbreaks of violence between the religious groups since that revolution.

KASTE: Everybody talks about how disheartening it is to see this now, given that recent history together. And in talking to the large group of Copts, thousands of people were protesting again on Sunday night right outside the state TV building, which is a place they commonly protest right along the Nile River.

And many of them told me that they're worried that this is not really about individual cases of rumors of someone converting or not, that this is somehow a deeper, more insidious movement to try to exacerbate these old tensions between the two communities.

And some of them are using the word counterrevolutionary. That it might be, you know - of course conspiracy theories fly in these situations - but that it might be some sort of an attempt to use sectarian differences to roll back what happened in January.

INSKEEP: Although there's also an effort to emphasize the unity of the groups. I'm thinking of a demonstration in March in which a general, a leading figure in the current government, held up a cross and a Koran together. What is the government doing now to calm things?

KASTE: It's funny. I've seen graffiti stenciled onto bridges and other places here with a similar sentiment - with a crescent and a cross together. So clearly many people share that general sentiment here.

The government was accused initially by the Copts of moving too slowly, of not preventing the violence. But since then it has come out talking very tough. The minster of justice went on television on Sunday and said 190 people had been arrested, would face military trial on this.

And he said that basically he did not want to see - that the government did not want to see counterrevolutionary forces imperiling the revolution. So they say they're going to be very tough on this kind of thing.

INSKEEP: Martin, thanks very much.

KASTE: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Martin Kaste reporting today from Cairo on the aftermath of violence between Muslims and Christians. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.