By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
CAIRO, EGYPT (BosNewsLife)– Egypt’s finance minister resigned Tuesday, October 11, saying he wanted to protest the “government’s handling” of protests that left at least 26 people dead, most of them Coptic Christians.
Hazem El-Beblawi made the announcement while thousands of Egyptian Coptic Christians attended a mass funeral for Christian protesters killed in street battles with security forces in the capital Cairo on Sunday, October 8.
In a letter to Prime Minister Essam Sharaf the finance minister reportedly made clear that he was no longer able to work in a cabinet that does not prevent the killing of minority Christians.
On Tuesday, October 11, the full extend became clear of what Christians called “a massacre”, the worst violence since a February uprising that ousted longtime president Hosni Mubarak.
CHURCH ATTACK CONDEMNED
The clashes began after more than 1,000 Christians marched to Egypt’s state television building in Cairo to protest the September 30 attack on a church and the burning, and looting, of Christian-owned homes and businesses by a Muslim mob in the tense southern city of Aswan.
During Sunday’s protest people were seen fighting with police and soldiers guarding the building, witnesses said. Armored vehicles reportedly rammed into protesters, killing several of them.
Some protesters threw rocks and gasoline bombs at security personnel, but Christian protesters accused “agitators” of joining in to provoke violence, BosNewsLife monitored.
“If they [the security forces] had taken a position of being against those who destroyed the churches, we would never have gotten to this point,” said Catholic Bishop Antonios Aziz Mina in an interview with Vatican Radio.
Many of the dead were seen having gunshot wounds. At least three soldiers were among those killed, according to local and international media estimates. Hundreds of other people were said to have been injured.
ARMY ‘AWAITING’ CHRISTIANS
“The army and police were waiting for us about 200 meters away from the Maspero TV building,” said Ihab Aziz, an activist who helped organize the protest in published remarks. “They started firing at us before two army armored vehicles came at great speed and drove into the crowds, going backwards and forwards, mowing people under their wheels.”
“My friend was killed tonight. He was run over,” Wagih Yacoub, a Coptic activist who himself was shot with rubber bullets, said in a statement released by advocacy group International Christian Concern.
“I was just with him a few hours ago. We were just talking. Then all of a sudden it happened and I went to the morgue and I just saw him lying there. It could have been me or anyone for that matter. It will be me sooner or later if it carries on like this.”
ICC Regional Manager for the Middle East, Aidan Clay, told BosNewsLife that “Sunday’s attack on Christian protesters was unprecedented in that it was initiated and encouraged by the very military that was praised for protecting the Egyptian people when President Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power earlier this year.”
The country’s ruling military said in a reaction to the criticism that it ordered the government to investigate the violence.
PRIME MINISTER REACTS
In a nationally televised address late Sunday, October 9, Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said the violence has taken the country backward, instead of advancing towards a modern state based on democratic principles.
Egyptian authorities said they have arrested dozens of people for involvement in the unrest, but no more details were immediately released Tuesday, October 11.
Impatient mourners have meanwhile packed the Coptic Christian Cathedral in Cairo since late Monday, October 10, filling hallways and corridors as funeral prayers are led by top assistants to Orthodox Pope Shenouda III.
Christian leaders have expressed concerns that Egypt’s current political situation will lead to more extremism towards the Christian minority and a repeat of tough regulations for churches.
MUBARAK’S CHURCH POLICY
Under Mubarak, any permit to do with a church building — even repainting it — had to be signed by the former president, according to Catholic sources.
At least one priest recalled waiting more than 21 years for a permit and said that, even after a permit was granted, state or local officials could stop construction for “security issues.”
Cardinal Naguib told the Italian bishops’ news agency, SIR, that the “attacks by Islamists against Christian institutions continue always under the pretext that churches are being built without explicit official authorization, which still remains very difficult to get.”
He said it was hard to tell how Egypt’s leaders viewed the treatment of Christians, because Shariah, or Islamic law, seemed to conflict with some previous declarations of intent.
Church leaders say they fear more attacks against Copts, who make up 10 percent of the 80-million-strong, mainly Muslim, population.