Dec. 30, 2004 21:51



Egypt: 1 dead, 23 detained in religous clashes



CAIRO, Egypt


Clashes between Muslims and Christians over claims that two brothers had opened a church in their southern Egyptian home have killed one Muslim and injured three, while 23 people have been detained, the Interior Ministry said Thursday.


The violence occurred Wednesday in Damshwai Hashim, a village in the province of Minya, where sectarian tensions have flared previously, some 220 kilometers (135 miles) south of Egypt's capital Cairo.


Authorities imposed a curfew over the village early Thursday and deployed hundreds of police, who patrolled the streets and blocked roads leading into the town over fears that violence could flare again.


The Interior Ministry said in a statement that the violence started after a rumor spread through the village that two Coptic Christian brothers had turned their house into a church and urged Copts to pray inside.


The statement said 200 Muslim villagers marched on the house, hurling stones at it before trying to storm the dwelling.


Security guards employed by local authorities intervened and fired rifles into the air while trying to disperse the crowd, but mistakenly killed an 18-year-old Muslim student Mohammed Mohsen Qassem and injured three others, the statement said.


Police also arrested 23 Muslims and Christians.


Residents in the Muslim-majority village say local Copts have grown angry since authorities last year rejected their demand to build a church, apparently because their numbers were too few. Christian villagers must travel to a nearby village to attend church services.


The violence followed clashes between Copts and security forces earlier this month at a Coptic Cathedral in Cairo during demonstrations against the reported kidnapping of a priest's wife who was forced to convert to Islam.


Coptic Christians comprise about 10 percent of Egypt's 70 million people, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. While Egyptian authorities say the country's Muslims and Christians live in relative harmony, many Copts complain of discrimination in this Muslim-dominated country.


During an Islamic insurrection in Egypt in the early 1990s, Copts were occasionally attacked by Muslim militants. In 2000, Christian-Muslim clashes in southern Egypt killed 23 people, all but two of them Copts.