A priest whose church was at the centre of sectarian riots last weekend said yesterday that Egyptian Christians were "under organised attack" as religious authorities warned the country was at risk of civil war.
Armed troops and riot police guarded the streets around St Mena's church and nearby burned-out shops and apartment blocks in the impoverished and crumbling Cairo suburb of Imbaba,
Inside, Fr Cherubim Awad said a conspiracy was the only possible explanation for the violence that had engulfed relations between Christians and Muslims in recent weeks.
"Five churches were attacked on the same night," he said. "From the beginning of this year we have had all these attacks in a short space of time.
"There is some hidden hand behind this, whether from inside the country or outside it."
The street battles, which began last Saturday evening outside St Mena's church, demonstrate the breakdown in law and order that took hold in parts of Egypt during the uprising, which saw former president Hosni Mubarak overthrown.
Police failed to intervene, while Fr Cherubim said that, after several hours, the army moved in to protect the church but not the surrounding buildings, and refused to break up the warring factions.
A large group of Salafi Muslims -- followers of a purist Islamic sect -- led the attack on St Mena's. They claimed a Christian woman, who had converted to Islam in order to marry a Muslim, was being held inside against her will.
"They performed evening prayer 200 metres from the church and after they finished they started shouting: 'We want you to leave.' Meaning the cops," Fr Cherubim said.
"They were shouting 'Islamiya, Islamiya, Islamiya, with our souls and blood we sacrifice ourselves for the crescent.'
"Are we not citizens? Are we foreigners? Should we leave this country now and go away?"
The Christian and Muslim sides disagree about who caused the escalation of violence. Local Muslims said it was a local Christian cafe owner who fired a gun into the air.
There has been considerable loss of life during the riots. Five Christians died in or around St Mena's and six Muslims died outside. When the army sealed the church, the mob moved on to the nearby Church of the Virgin Mary. After burning it to the ground they beat the watchman to death. (© Daily Telegraph, London)