Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Egyptian authorities on Wednesday to bring to account those responsible for recent sectarian violence that left five Coptic Christians and one Muslim dead in the town of Al-Khosous north of Cairo.
In a statement, the New York-based rights group also called on authorities to investigate the failure of Egyptian police to intervene effectively to prevent an escalation of violence outside St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo following a Sunday funeral service for Christians killed earlier in Al-Khosous.
At least five incidents of sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims have taken place since President Mohamed Morsi became Egypt's first democratically-elected president in June of last year, according to the statement.
The rights group criticised alleged government negligence in investigating serious incidents of sectarian violence during the preceding period of military rule or during the rule of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, which, the group claimed, are "rarely properly investigated and punished."
According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, incidents of religious violence between members of Egypt's Muslim and Christian communities have increased significantly since 2008.
However, according to HRW, only one case – in Dahshour, south of Cairo, in July 2012 – was investigated, although investigations failed to lead to any prosecutions.
"President Mohamed Morsi needs to acknowledge the deep and longstanding problem of sectarian violence in Egypt and take decisive steps to address it before it escalates further," said Nadine Houry, HRW's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
"For years, people have been getting away with sectarian murder, and he should break that cycle of impunity," she added. "Then he should reform laws that discriminate against Christians' right to worship."
State news agency MENA on Monday reported that police had arrested 30 people in relation to Saturday's sectarian flare-up in Al-Khosous.
President Morsi has also called for an investigation into Sunday's attacks on mourners outside St. Mark's Cathedral.
On Monday, US Ambassador to Egypt Ann Patterson welcomed President Morsi's promise to launch a full and transparent investigation into the violence, but said: "It is the responsibility of the state to protect all of its citizens."
HRW also slammed Egyptian law for prohibiting the renovation or construction of churches without a presidential decree in what the group describes as "law discrimination against Christians."
"The government should ensure that the Shura Council [the upper house of Egypt's parliament, currently endowed with legislative powers] prioritises changing the law to remove this obstacle to Christians' right to worship," HRW said.
According to the rights group, there was a failed attempt to draft a unified law on places of worship – which would have been applied equally to mosques and churches – after a particularly serious bout of violence in Cairo's teeming Imbaba district in May 2011. Twelve people died, 52 were injured and two churches were burnt down following Muslim-Christian confrontations.
"Article 43 of Egypt's new constitution, which took effect in December of last year, explicitly recognises the right of Christians to have their own places of worship, but the government has yet to repeal the earlier discriminatory law," added the HRW statement.
Meanwhile, visiting European Union foreign-policy chief, Catherine Ashton, voiced fresh concerns in a statement on Sunday over recent sectarian violence. She said she had contacted the president's office to call for self-restraint and urge security forces to contain the violence.
Violence broke out in the town of Al-Khosous on Friday when Christian children allegedly drew offensive paintings on a Muslim religious institute, which led to an altercation with Muslim residents. The situation soon escalated into a battle in which gunshots were heard and shops and buildings set ablaze.
Four Copts and a Muslim were killed in the ensuing violence.