Cairo: Egypt's prime minister called an emergency cabinet meeting on Sunday after 10 people died in bloody clashes in a Cairo suburb over the conversion of a Christian woman to Islam.
The sectarian violence on Saturday was Egypt's worst since 13 people died in clashes on March 9 sparked by a church burning, and throws down a new challenge for generals ruling the country since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
There was a brief burst of gunfire on Sunday in the neighbourhood where the violence had taken place.
About 500 conservative Islamists known as Salafists massed outside the Saint Mina Church in the Cairo suburb of Imbaba on Saturday demanding that Christians there hand over a woman they said had converted to Islam.
The Salafists were joined by other Muslims who demanded access to the church to see if she was inside. Tensions flared, gunfire broke out and the two sides threw firebombs and stones.
Soldiers and police fired shots in the air and used teargas to separate the two sides but stone-throwing skirmishes went on through the night in streets near the church.
A power cut plunged the neighbourhood into darkness, making it harder for the security forces to quell the violence.
Another church nearby, Saint Mary's, was set on fire and badly damaged in the overnight clashes.
"My son attends this church. How can we ever feel safe?" said Nashaat Boshra, who stood crying in front of Saint Mary's on Sunday. "This is religious strife facilitated by the army and police. Let's just face the truth."
By Sunday morning, the army had stationed tanks in streets around the church and was checking people walking in the area. Residents warned passers-by to avoid the area which was generally calm on Sunday apart from the brief burst of gunfire.
"I think the army is in a state of confusion," said Gamal Eid, a prominent author and human rights activist. "It is afraid to take serious action against extremists so as not to be accused of suppressing these movements."
Sectarian strife often flares in Egypt over conversions, family disputes and the construction of churches. Muslims and Christians made demonstrations of unity during the protests that overthrew Mubarak, but interfaith tensions have grown.
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf cancelled a tour of Gulf states to call an emergency cabinet meeting on Sunday morning to discuss the violence.
Christians make up about 10 per cent of Egypt's 80 million population.
Some Christians said the security forces had been too slow to disperse the crowd in front of the church and looked on as tension got out of hand.
Police who deserted the streets during the protests which led to Mubarak's downfall on February 11 have returned to their jobs, but many Egyptians say they feel less safe on the streets.
State media gave the new death toll and revised the number of injured to 186, with two in a critical condition in hospital. At least five were reported dead on Saturday and 75 injured.
One of the new corpses was found inside the church, official news agency MENA reported.
Injured Muslims and Christians being treated in hospital showed reporters small holes that looked like shotgun wounds.
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