CAIRO (AP) — Three suspects in a drive-by shooting that killed six Christians in southern Egypt surrendered to police Friday, while authorities faced mounting pressure to resolve the sectarian dispute in the tense community reeling from a bloody Coptic Christmas Eve attack.
Egyptian security forces had blanketed the area between the village of Farshout and the town of Nag Hamadi, where the slayings occurred late Wednesday, blocking suspects from fleeing into nearby desert mountains, the state MENA news agency reported.
The troops then flushed the men out of dense sugar cane fields they were hiding in, and forced them to surrender, the report said.
In the Wednesday shooting in Nag Hamadi, just 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of the famed Luxor ruins, gunmen had opened fire on a crowd of worshippers leaving a church after mass for Coptic Orthodox Christmas Eve. Six Christians and a Muslim security guard died in a hale of bullets.
The attack was the worst to target Christians in nearly a decade, and shocked Egypt’s Christian community. Copts, who make up most of 8 million Christians in this country of 80 million people, celebrate Christmas according to the old, Julian calendar, on Jan. 7.
The attack also underscored the government’s failure to address chronic sectarian strains in a society where religious radicalism is gaining ground. The Interior Ministry immediately called the shooting a revenge for the alleged November rape of a 12-year-old Muslim girl by a Christian man in the same town.
On Thursday, thousands of angry Christians went on a rampage in Nag Hamadi following the funerals of the six, clashing with police and smashing ambulances and shop windows. A brief calm followed but evaporated by nightfall Friday, when some 200 Copts gathered outside the local church demanding revenge and criticizing authorities for failing to protect their community.
“With our soul, our blood, we will defend the Cross,” they shouted, then headed for main streets, breaking windows and clashing with Muslim residents. Police cordoned off the downtown area.
Witnesses said Muslims retaliated by torching a handful of Christian homes in the town and a neighboring village. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Human rights groups say sectarian violence has been on the rise in Egypt. Amnesty International said attacks on the Coptic Christian community left eight people dead in 2008.
Egypt’s Prosecutor General Abdel-Maguid Mahmoud arrived in the stricken town Friday to take charge of the investigation, while security chiefs met to discuss ways to ensure violence doesn’t erupt anew. Local Muslim leaders and government officials converged on the Nag Hamadi Diocese to offer their condolences.
Bishop Kirollos said he had feared the attack, which could have been prevented if security had been alert. The three suspects are known to have criminal records, according to state media.
Youssef Sidhom, editor of the Coptic Watani newspaper, said Egypt has a track record of rarely seeing justice through in sectarian attacks. He criticized authorities for labeling the attack a “revenge” and for organizing quick local reconciliation sessions instead of resolving the issues.
“In Egypt in such attacks … there is no guarantee that arresting the culprits means they will be put on trial or are convicted,” he said. “Judges are never presented with enough evidence to convict the killers, and they end up going free.”
Clashes between Christians and Muslims occasionally occur in southern Egypt, mostly over land or church construction disputes and in recent years have spread to the capital. The Copts are limited in where they can build churches and must obtain government approval before expanding existing ones. The government insists Christians enjoy the same rights as Muslims.
Sidhom said a rising wave of Islamic radicalism has driven Christians toward more isolation and created a gap of trust between the communities.
Abdel Moeti Bayoumi, a religious scholar at Cairo’s prominent Islamic Al-Azhar University, said the attack was “heinous” but he wouldn’t call it sectarian violence.
“There are irregular cases. Generally, we live in harmony,” he said. “We will find most of these incidents are not religious in nature.”
In 2000, Christian-Muslim clashes touched off by an argument between a Coptic merchant and a Muslim shopper in a southern village left 23 people dead.