EGYPT: Coptic Church lashes out at military over deadly violence

Cairo, Egypt - The Coptic Christian Church on Monday denounced Egypt’s military leaders who it said allowed thugs to invade a protest, leading to violent clashes that killed at least 24 people, most of them Copts, and igniting sectarian tensions.

“Strangers got in the middle of our sons and committed mistakes to be blamed on our sons,” a church statement said. It added that attacks and discrimination against Copts are “problems that occur repeatedly and go unpunished.”

Photos: Deadly clashes in Cairo

Funerals for four Coptic protesters, killed in clashes Sunday with military police and thugs in plainclothes, kept the country on edge.

The ruling military council, which is steadily losing credibility among many Egyptians, called for an investigation into the deaths. Angry Christians hurled rocks at police outside a Cairo hospital where the bodies of other protesters awaited burial.

"This is a huge crisis that could end in a civil clash. It could end in dire consequences," said Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister now running for president.

Ultraconservative Islamists have burned churches and inflamed sectarian passions in recent months. Copts said that the attacks on protesters Sunday — the bloodiest unrest since February — also revealed the virulent anti-Christian attitudes held by many in the security forces. Others said the military was stoking unrest to justify further tightening its grip on the country despite its eroding stature.

The violence escalated quickly Sunday and jolted what had begun as a peaceful rally by Christians to protest the recent burning by Muslims of a church in southern Egypt. Copts began hurling bottles and rocks at security forces after military vehicles plowed through demonstrators as gunshots echoed overhead and crowds scattered.