A peaceful march by Copts today against religious persecution gave way to a night of violence after the protesters were attacked.
The march of around 10,000, which began in Shubra, turned violent when protesters were attacked by stone throwing mobs from on top of the surrounding walls while they were trying to cross the Shubra tunnel. A 15-minute battle ensued as the Coptic protesters fought back and hurled stones at their assailants.
Gun shots were fired in the sky, leaving terrified demonstrators wondering aloud if they were going to be shot.
During the attack panic ensued as women protesters were told to stand under the bridge for safety as Coptic youth tried to contain the march. After the battle stopped the march, once again regained its peaceful nature and continued towards Maspero.
On their way to Maspero they stopped in the neighboring Galaa Street and were attacked once again. Random gun fire was aimed at the crowd from a speeding car.
The march continued once again to Maspero, where the protesters came under brutal and persistent attack.
An Ahram Online correspondent at Maspero reports seeing glass being thrown down at protesters from inside the State Broadcasting building, while armoured personnel carriers were driven by the army through the crowds, hitting and running over protesters. Eyewitness accounts posted on Twitter detail people being shot by the armed forces and attacked by plain-clothed thugs, with fire consuming vehicles by the Nile.
Ambulances ferried tens of injured protesters away from the scene.
Later in the evening, Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, posted on Twitter that he saw 17 bodies in the morgue at the Coptic Hospital.
So far confirmed as being among those killed are Mina Daniel, an activist and blogger; Wael Yunna, a journalist for Coptic TV; and Michael Mosaad, an activist and member of the Maspero Youth Coalition.
The protest was organised by the Maspero Youth Union, a group of young Coptic activists, to protest against the recent violations against Copts. The protesters chanted: "Raise your head high you are a Copt,” and “No to burning of churches.” Chants were also directed against the army, such as “The people demand the removal of the Field Marshal [Tantawi],” and “Tantawi, where is your army, our homes and churches are being attacked.”
Many of the protesters held huge crosses, one of which was dressed in army garb with a banner stuck on it saying “We thought the army will unite us, but they divided us.”
The latest attack suffered by Egypt's Christians on their freedom to worship occured late last month in the village of Merinab, in Aswan, where Muslim villagers attempted to block renovations underway at a Christian church. They claimed that the building was a "guesthouse" that cannot be turned into a church.
Among the demands called for by the demonstrators was that Aswan governor, Mustafa El-Sayed, resign after he attempted to justify the attack on the Merinab church. The increasing attacks against Copts in recent months and the lack of protection afforded them by the army have been cited as evidence of latent persecution against Egypt's Christians.
The interim government's stalling added to the anger of demonstrators, who demanded to know why Essam Sharaf's Cabinet has refused, or failed, to introduce an anti-discrimination law promised last May. The draft for a unified building code for Muslims and Christians has also not been ratified.
“You can call it whatever you like, anti-discrimination law, an anti-racism law,” fumed lawyer Nabil Ghabriel. “But the point it we want equality in this country.”
Another protester from Shubra, Lotfy Mikhael, insisted that the situation has continued to deteriorate since the revolution began.
“I feel that this is a cross Egypt’s Christians have to bear and we will never feel equal in this country,” Mikhael said. “All we want is to be treated the same as Muslims.”
The protest was mostly peaceful for the first hour, with protesters at one point creating a human cross in the middle of the Shubra Road. However, as the march approached the Shubra tunnel, several protesters burned a picture of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi amid whistles and cheers. The situation quickly turned violent as they came under attack from a hail of stones from assailants standing over them.
“The army is treating us the way Mubarak treated protesters during the revolution,” protester Mary Nour told Ahram Online after the stone throwing ended. “But we will never give up.”
Later in the night, the army used tear gas to disperse the remaining protesters at Maspero, with more rocks thrown down from the 6 October Bridge by police and armed forces. Security forces chased any protesters who had congregated on the bridge away from Maspero with tear gas cannisters hailing down throughout. Our correspondent reports seeing one protester shot in the shoulder with live round casings litter the ground.
Local residents in the Bulaq district of Cairo took part in the attack on the protest, brandishing weapons and throwing rocks at demonstrators, whom they accused of being "troublemakers."
According to one of our correspondents on the scene, "It looks like the Bulaq 'thugs' are taking charge now, the security forces have let them."
Immediately after filing over the phone, the same correspondent was set upon by an angry mob, accusing him of being a spy.