EGYPT: Coptic church attacked by 5,000 rioters

Last Friday, the Coptic church of St. George in Alexandria was attacked by 5,000 angry Muslim protesters. The demonstrators gathered following Friday prayers at local mosques. They began to throw stones at the church and at police officers. Over 20 people were injured before the protest (the third in a week) was broken up by Egyptian police who used tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Three people died in the crush and dozens more were injured. Police have since arrested 100 people suspected with inciting the riot.

The protests followed the circulation of a DVD showing a play which was staged at the church in 2003 titled ” I Once Was Blind But Now I See”. The play features a poor Christian university student who converts to Islam when a group of Muslim men promise him much-needed money. When he becomes disenchanted with his decision, the men threaten him with physical violence to prevent him from returning to his original faith.

Coptic Christian leaders have said the play depicts the dangers of extremism, not of Islam. “Copts would never tolerate anyone insulting Islam,” Coptic Bishop Armia is quoted by Egypt’s official Mena news agency as saying.

The Egyptian Interior Ministry described the protesters as “fanatic elements” who “escalated a negative reaction to a play”. They also accused Islamic militants of distributing the DVDs to stoke sectarian tensions.

Protests had been held at the church on the previous Friday and also on Wednesday of last week when a protester stabbed a Coptic nun and a man outside the church. Both are now recovering from their injuries and police arrested their attacker at the scene.

The earlier protests ( which called for the church to apologise and dismiss itspriest) received wide coverage in the international media which some observers believe led to the large scale riot on Friday. Thousands of police have been sent to Alexandria. (Al Jazeera, Assist, BBC + other sources)