Coptic Christians pressing for more protection from Egypt's ruling military got a brutal answer to their protests on Oct. 9: Egyptian soldiers opened fire on civilians and plowed armored vehicles into crowds, as scores of Muslims joined a riot that spread across Cairo, killing at least 26 people, mostly Coptic Christians.
Protesters quickly dubbed the violent night "Bloody Sunday," marking the country's worst sectarian violence since President Hosni Mubarak's ouster in February. Nearly a month before Egyptians are set to vote in the first parliamentary elections since the country's revolution, minority groups worry that a hostile military could leave them more vulnerable than ever.
Trouble began when a Coptic group called Maspero Youth Union began a march toward the headquarters of Egyptian state television in Cairo: The group was protesting the Muslim burning of a Coptic church on Sept. 30 and the ruling military's failure to protect Christians from a slate of attacks over the last eight months. As soldiers used tear gas and armored vehicles to disperse the crowds, a riot erupted that included Muslim onlookers defending the army by attacking Christians.
The riot grew worse as state-run Egyptian television called on viewers to defend the army against Christian attacks. Some Egyptian channels reported a false statement that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged to send U.S. troops to protect Christians.
By the next morning, hundreds of rioters were injured, and at least 26 were dead.
Two senior Egyptian generals defended the army's actions, saying that outsiders were inciting sectarian violence to unravel the revolution. Videos posted online showed soldiers beating civilians, shooting into crowds, and chasing protesters in military vehicles. The Associated Press reported that some onlookers attacked groups of Christians with sticks, swords, firebombs, and firearms. Amnesty International reported the cause of death for many of the victims as gunshot wounds or crushing by vehicle.
"The same army that said in January that it would 'not fire a single shot against an Egyptian citizen' ... now used live ammunition and excessive force in this situation," said Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom.
Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf called the protests "a dirty conspiracy" and accused "hidden hands" of provoking the unrest. But laying blame on foreign forces struck many as a hollow attempt to divert attention from the growing unrest among Egyptian groups and growing dissatisfaction with military rule.
Some Egyptians-including Christians and Muslims-fear that the military is stoking unrest to remain in power longer. The interim military government has already hinted that presidential elections may be another year away. Meanwhile, Christians worry about the rising political influence of Salafi Muslims-an ultraconservative group more radical than the Muslim Brotherhood. The religious group opposes treating non-Muslims as citizens with equal rights.
Nearly a week later, hundreds of Muslims and Christians marched in Cairo in a show of solidarity from a prominent mosque to a central Cairo cathedral to protest the bloody fighting. But even those efforts were marked by clashes as onlookers near the mosque threw rocks at the demonstrators. Inside the mosque, the imam addressed the clashes during his Friday prayer sermon, calling on Egyptians to protect the country's military from any protesters.
From Cairo, Coptic Orthodox Bishop Thomas said, "We are passing through a dark tunnel of violence, feeling grief of death and injustice. ... Trying to bring forgiveness and justice together is a big struggle, but we are committed to the love that never fails. We are hardly pressed on every side, yet not crushed."