Coptic pope appeals for calm as Egypt clashes continue


Nagaa Hamadi (Egypt) : Pope Shenouda III, the head of Egypt’s Coptic Church, has appealed for calm as sectarian clashes continued in the southern town of Nagaa Hamadi.

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In a message sent to all Coptic churches around the country, Pope Shenouda told Christians Thursday night that their religion calls on them to be patient, and that they should continue celebrating Christmas, which Coptic Christians observe on Jan 7.

The message came amid continued clashes between Muslim and Christian residents of the southern town of Nagaa Hamadi, following a drive-by shooting outside a church there the previous night that left eight Christian teenagers and one Muslim police officer dead.

Hundreds of Christians clashed with police on Thursday, smashing shops on one of the town’s main thoroughfares and attacking mosques with sticks and stones.

Muslim residents of the town responded on Thursday evening by rioting in predominantly Christian neighbourhoods of the town, some 650 kilometres south of Cairo, and smashing Christian-owned shops.

Witnesses said the town was full of riot police, but that they initially appeared unable to stop the unrest.

Bishop Kirollos of the Nagaa Hamadi Diocese blamed the police for the incident, saying that he had asked security officers to take special precautions during Christmas celebrations.

Kirollos said he had received a text message on his mobile saying, “It is your turn”, and that he believed he had been the target of the attack, Cairo’s al-Masry al-Youm newspaper reported on its website.

He said townspeople had also threatened his parishioners in the streets, and that some had shouted “We will not let you have festivities”, the station reported.

Police said that they had identified three suspects in the case, and that they were pursuing them. One police officer, speaking to DPA on condition of anonymity, said police believed the shooters had been hired.

Sectarian relations in the town have been tense since Muslim residents rioted in response to the rape of a 12-year-old girl, allegedly by a Christian man.

According to government figures, Christians account for roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s population, though many Egyptian Christians believe the real figure is higher.

Clashes between Egypt’s Christian and Muslim populations are rare, but tensions do periodically erupt over disputes over women or the construction of houses of worship.