By BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos and Joseph DeCaro
CAIRO, EGYPT (BosNewsLife)– Four people were injured and Muslims burned down eight Christian homes in southern Egypt amid clashes over the alleged illegal construction of a church, Christians and officials said.
A local security chief, Assem Hamza, said troubles began when Muslim residents of the Awlad Khalaf village rallied Saturday, June 25, outside Christian-owned land “where illegal construction of a church” was under way.
Witnesses said an angry Muslim mob of some 200 people also looted and torched eight homes belonging to the Christian family of the property’s owner, Wahib Halim Attia.
Police arrived only hours after the rioting ended, Christians complained.
Security forces deployed as Muslim residents, including ultraconservative Salafis, moved in with bulldozers to try to bring down the construction and end the confrontations, officials said.
Hamza claimed Christians fired gunshots and the two sides scuffled. Three Muslims were shot, including one in serious condition, he said. A Christian had reportedly stab wounds.
Attia condemned the Muslim crackdown saying he obtained a license “to build a house” that later grew to occupy 350 square meters, “sparking a rumor” that he intended to build a church instead. He did not confirm or deny allegations that he planned to use the house for church services.
Priest Weesa Azmy confirmed that someone complained to local authorities about “irregularities” in the construction of Attia’s house.
“Wahib carried on with the construction,” said Azmy, “which angered the Muslims, who decided to play God and take the law into their own hands; they attacked the construction site and other Christian homes.”
Until recently, constructing new churches in Egypt required permission directly from the president; some Christians have waited years to build a new church.
Christian groups have pressured the interim-government to introduce more reforms. Egypt is currently a republic under military rule after the President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak stepped down following several days of protests earlier this year.
Police was reportedly guarding Christian homes in Wahib Halim Sunday, June 26, following Saturday’s attack, but tensions remained high. Egypt’s native Christians, known as Copts, comprise some 10 percent of the country’s 82 million people, who are mainly Muslim.
The latest clashes come at a time when Copts complain of attacks by increasingly assertive Salafis who they say use the power vacuum created by Mubarak’s fall.
Christian leaders said there have been several other attacks against minority Christians, including the reported increased number of abductions of Coptic teenagers and young women. Kidnapped at home or in the street, they are forced to convert and marry Muslim men, church groups say.
The latest case involved two girls, 14-year-old Nacy and 16-year-old Christine, who disappeared on June 12. Police found them days later, wearing a niqab but with a cross tattooed on their wrist, well-informed Catholic news agency AsiaNews reported.
Fearing repercussions, they said they converted to Islam.
An official religious committee said later the two Coptic teenagers could not be viewed as Muslims, because they were still minors when the alleged conversion took place.
Despite complaints by their family, the two teenagers are being kept in a mental hospital until the end of the investigation, Christians said.
“The daily abduction and forced Islamisation of Coptic minors, conducted by Muslims funded by Saudi Arabia, has escalated to new levels after the 25 January Revolution,” explained Coptic activist Mark Ebeid in publised remarks.
It has also “greatly enraged the Copts. Everyone now fears they might not be able to stand any longer continuous Islamist provocations,” AsiaNews quoted him as saying.