Massive clashes that drew in Christians angry over a recent church attack, Muslims, and Egyptian security forces raged over a large section of downtown Cairo Sunday night, leaving at least 19 people dead and more than 150 injured, Health Ministry officials said. It was the worst violence since the 18-day uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in February.
The ongoing clashes lasted late into the night, bringing out a deployment of more than 1,000 security forces and armored vehicles to defend the state television building along the Nile, where the trouble began. The clashes spread to nearby Tahrir Square and the area around it, drawing in thousands of people. They battled each other with rocks and firebombs, some tearing up pavement for ammunition and others collecting stones in boxes.
At one point, a group of youths with at least one riot policeman among them dragged a protester by his legs for a long distance. Witnesses said some of the protesters may have snatched weapons from the soldiers and turned them on the military. The protesters also pelted the soldiers with rocks and bottles.
"There was also rock throwing, vehicles being lit on fire, and all of downtown ... erupted into incredible violence," NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson told Robert Smith, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered.
Christians blame Egypt's ruling military council for being too lenient on those behind a spate of anti-Christian attacks since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February. Egypt's Coptic Christian minority makes up about 10 percent of the country of more than 80 million people. As Egypt undergoes a chaotic power transition and security vacuum in the wake of this year's uprising, Christians are particularly worried about the increasing show of force by the ultraconservative Islamists.
"Since Mubarak left office in February, there's been an escalating tension between some of the ultraconservative muslims and the Christians here," Nelson said. "And the feeling is the military rulers here were not doing anything to try and prevent that or stop the escalation."
The Christian protesters said their demonstration began as a peaceful attempt to sit in at the television building. But then, they said they came under attack by thugs in plainclothes who rained stones down on them and fired pellets.
"The protest was peaceful. We wanted to hold a sit-in, as usual," said Essam Khalili, a protester wearing a white shirt with a cross drawn on it. "Thugs attacked us and a military vehicle jumped over a sidewalk and ran over at least 10 people. I saw them."
Wael Roufail, another protester, corroborated the account.
"I saw the vehicle running over the protesters. Then they opened fired at us," he said.
Khalili said protesters set fire to army vehicles when they saw them hitting the protesters.
Television footage of the riots showed some of the Coptic protesters attacking a soldier, while a priest tried to protect him. One soldier collapsed in tears as ambulances rushed to the scene to take away the injured.
The protest began in the Shubra district of northern Cairo, then headed to the state television building along the Nile where men in plainclothes attacked about a thousand Christian protesters as they chanted denunciations of Egypt's military rulers.
"The people want to topple the field marshal," the protesters yelled, referring to the head of the ruling military council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. Some Muslim protesters later joined in the same chant.
Armed with sticks, they chased the Christian protesters from the TV building, banging metal street signs to scare them off. It was not immediately clear who the attackers were.
Gunshots rang out at the scene, where lines of riot police with shields tried to hold back hundreds of Christian protesters chanting "This is our country."
Security forces eventually fired tear gas to disperse the protesters. The clashes then moved to nearby Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 18-day uprising that ousted Mubarak. The army closed off streets around the area.
The clashes left streets littered with shattered glass, stones, ashes and soot from burned vehicles. Hundreds of curious onlookers gathered at one of the bridges over the Nile nearby to watch the unrest.
After hours of intense clashes, chants of "Muslims, Christians one hand, one hand" rang out, a call for a truce. The stone-throwing died down after that.
In the past weeks, riots have broken out at two churches in southern Egypt, prompted by Muslim crowds angry over church construction. One riot broke out near the city of Aswan, even after church officials agreed to a demand by local ultraconservative Muslims, called Salafis, that a cross and bells be removed from the building.
Aswan's governor, Gen. Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyed, further raised tensions by telling the media that the church was being built on the site of a guesthouse, suggesting it was illegal.
Protesters said the Copts are demanding the ouster of the governor, reconstruction of the church, compensation for people whose houses were set on fire and prosecution of those behind the riots and attacks on the church.
Last week, security forces used force to disperse a similar protest in front of the state television building. Christians were angered by the treatment of the protesters and vowed to renew their demonstrations until their demands are met.