Copts continue sit-in despite Pope’s call to disperse

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CAIRO: Thousand of Copts carried on with an open sit-in at the state TV building Maspero on Sunday, despite Pope Shenouda’s call to end it “immediately.”

Coptic protesters at Maspero brushed off reports that the head of Egypt’s Coptic church Pope Shenouda III called for an end to the sit-in, saying they will stay until their demands are met.

"These are all rumors spread by state TV, they aren’t true," member of the Coptic group Maspero Youth, Youssef Kamal, told Daily News Egypt. "If [Shenouda] wants to tell us something, he’ll say it through our Coptic channels."

"Our fathers and Bishops would have told us what the Pope said if it were true, but it isn’t," said one protester who preferred to remain anonymous.

Bishop Filopateer Gamil of the Giza Archbishopric, who has been participating in the week-long sit-in, refused to comment on Shenouda’s statement.

Shenouda on Sunday called on Christians to "immediately" end their week-long sit-in, according to MENA state news agency.

"To all those protesting outside (the state television building), the situation has now gone beyond expression of opinion, you have been infiltrated by people whose style is different to yours," Shenouda said

"There have been scuffles and shooting and all this harms the reputation of Egypt as well as your reputation and so you must end this sit-in immediately," he said.

"What is happening does not please anyone… but you are the losers if this sit-in continues," he added.

Thousands gathered at Maspero to condemn a late night attack on Saturday, which left 78 injured, according to official reports. However, doctors from the makeshift hospital in front of Maspero put the number of injuries at around 100.

Dr Michell William, on the scene, told DNE that one protester died from a fractured skull as a result of a bullet wound during the clashes.

However, the Ministry of Health statement reported no fatalities, saying only that injuries ranged from bullet wounds to concussions to mild bruises and burns.

A total of 54 patients were released from hospital while 15 were treated on-site, according to the statement.

Coptic protesters were joined by a small number of Muslim demonstrators Sunday, calling on Egypt’s Muslim community to show solidarity. Some accused the army and police forces of conspiring with Salafis, or ultra-conservative Muslims, against them.

Aida Saleib said, “I call on all Egyptians — Muslims and Christians — to fight against the remnants of the former regime who are causing these clashes including [Field Marshall Hussein] Tantawi."

"Tantawi is serving and working for ousted president Hosni Mubarak, while the Christians are the victims," said Nadia Suleiman, a housewife.

"Muslims are our brothers and sisters, and they were standing in the front lines with us yesterday while we were being attacked," a member of Maspero Youth, who preferred to remain anonymous, said.

Protesters called for the arrest of those responsible for Saturday’s attack, likening it to the infamous “Battle of the Camel” against peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square on Feb. 2.

"What happened to our children in Tahrir Square in February happened to us yesterday," Saleib said. "What Tantawi is doing to the Egyptian people is unjust."

One account told to AFP claimed that clashes broke out after an altercation between a young Muslim and Coptic protesters. The Muslim returned to the protest site with a group of friends and fired on the Christians with a hunting rifle, sources told AFP.

Clashes then erupted with rocks being thrown and a number of young Muslims arrived later and threw Molotov cocktails at the Christian protesters’ vehicles, police said.

At one point Sunday afternoon, a mild altercation erupted when some protesters threw rocks at the state TV building, claiming that employees inside the building provoked them with curses and hand gestures. It lasted for minutes until other protesters chanted "peaceful, peaceful."

Earlier, protesters claimed that a bearded Muslim man who they described as a "Salafi extremist" provoked them by attempting to force his way inside the demonstration without first being searched.

"He cursed our religion and looked like a thug," one eyewitness said. Mild clashes erupted as protesters handed him over to the army.

Eyewitnesses to Saturday’s violence told DNE they were attacked by thugs led by Salafis who came in from the direction of the 15th of May and October 6 Bridges.

Thugs used live bullets and Molotov cocktails while the police and army stood by, eyewitnesses said.

Other reports claimed that police and army personnel ran away when the attacks began. Hours later, police forces dispersed the clashes using tear gas bombs, according to eyewitnesses.

"How can they throw tear gas bombs on us and our children?" Saleib said.

Some eyewitnesses claimed that street vendors in front of Maspero as well as the army left the premises a couple of hours before the attack, insinuating that authorities knew an attack was going to take place and did nothing to prevent it.

Eyewitnesses all agreed that nothing happened to provoke the attack, which they described as well organized.

Last week, violent clashes broke out after Muslims surrounded a church in Cairo demanding the handover of a woman they said Christians had detained after she converted to Islam and left her Christian husband to marry a Muslim. Fifteen people were killed and more than 200 injured.

Egyptian riot policemen block a road on May 15, leading to the state television building in Cairo. (AFP Photo/Khaled Desouki)

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