Military Council warns of sectarianism as unity rally planned

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CAIRO: Egypt’s military warned on Thursday it will strike down sectarianism, as Muslims and Christians prepared to hold a unity rally denouncing attacks on Cairo churches.

The military, in power since president Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in February, struggled to contain the violent clashes on Saturday that left 15 people dead, according to the official human rights council.

The mob attacks, which left a church in flames, drove the country’s precarious religious tensions to the brink and led to several days of protests by Coptic Christians.

"The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces warned of the dangers facing Egypt through sectarian discord, affirming that this is a red line," the official MENA news agency quoted a military spokesman as saying.

"Anyone who toys with this area will be struck down with an iron hand," he was quoted as saying.

Activists are calling on the country’s Christians and Muslims to come out on Friday to denounce sectarian divisions.

Calls for protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square — the symbolic heart of the rallies against Mubarak — and across the country are circulating on social networking websites, including Facebook and Twitter.

The caretaker government has said it will ban protests and gatherings outside places of worship and prepare a law to ease restrictions on building churches within a month.

Copts, who make up about 10 percent of the country’s 80-million people, complain of state sanctioned religious discrimination, such as a law that requires them to obtain presidential permission before constructing churches.

Saturday’s clashes in the poor district of Imbaba began after Muslims attacked a church to free a Christian woman they alleged was being held against her will because she wanted to convert to Islam.

The clashes took place amid a security vacuum present since most of the country’s police stations were torched during the revolt, leading to a sense of general insecurity.

A state-owned newspaper on Thursday cited Tourism Minister Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour as saying hotel reservations in most tourist areas fell by 15 percent following the attacks on the churches.

In all, Egypt lost LE 13.5 billion ($2.27 billion dollars) in tourism revenues in the three months since Mubarak was forced to resign on Feb. 11, he said.

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