Mixed romance sparks clashes in Egypt

Christians and Muslims fought in the streets of western Cairo in violence triggered by word of a mixed romance, Egypt’s official news agency reported.

At least five people were killed as the clashes marked an escalation in tension between Egypt’s Muslims and its Coptic Christian minority that has coincided with uncertainty surrounding the country’s path after Hosni Mubarak’s removal as president in February.

Conservative Muslims have renewed protests in recent days accusing the church of abducting the wife of a Coptic priest who the protesters believe converted to Islam. Copts answered by holding their own rally on Friday outside the Orthodox Church to protest over what they said was the “targeting of the church”.

The news agency said the violence on Saturday broke out in the Imbaba neighbourhood after word spread that a Christian woman had married a Muslim and was being held in a church against her will.

Hundreds of Muslims converged on the church to demand the woman be released, witnesses said. Copts stood outside the church protecting it. The witnesses said gunfire was exchanged in the melee, including people shooting from rooftops.

Islamists threw firebombs, and some homes were burned near the church, they said. Crowds chanted: “With our souls and our blood we defend you, Islam.”

Besides the dead, 54 people were injured, the news agency reported, quoting government medical official Abdel-Halim el-Behiri.

Egyptian TV reported that the military and police were trying to break up the stand-off. Witnesses said they used tear gas and fired into the air.

Mixed relationships are taboo in Egypt, where the Muslim majority and sizeable Christian minority are both largely conservative. Such relationships are often the source of deadly clashes.

If a Christian woman marries a Muslim, she is expelled from the church. A Muslim woman is not allowed to marry a Christian man, according to state law.

Because divorce is banned under the Coptic Church, unless under stringent conditions, many women resort to conversion as a way to get out of a marriage.

The case of Camilla Shehata, the wife of a Coptic priest, captivated attention last summer and has again become a source of tension.

Ultra-conservative Muslims have held protests and appeared on talk shows demanding the return of Ms Shehata to Islam. They accused police of collaborating with the church by handing Ms Shehata over to church authorities to reconvert her.

On Saturday, Ms Shehata appeared on a Christian TV station broadcast from outside Egypt in a teleconference with her husband to say she was still a Christian and had never converted.

She said the protests were an attack on the church. “Let the protesters leave the church alone and turn their attention to Egypt’s future.” The woman’s whereabouts is unknown.

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