Egypt's caretaker government held crisis talks yesterday after attacks on Coptic Christian churches by Muslim mobs left at least 12 people dead and pushed growing religious tensions to breaking point.
The riots, in Imbaba, a poor, densely populated district of Cairo, heightened fears of a power grab by Islamic fundamentalists, further sectarian strife and a collapse in law and order.
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf called an emergency cabinet meeting after cutting short a tour of Gulf oil states intended to win Egypt financial support, three months after the uprising that led to Hosni Mubarak being overthrown.
Following the meeting, Abdel Aziz al-Gindi, the justice minister, said: "We will strike with an iron hand all those who seek to tamper with the nation's security."
He promised to protect places of worship from attack.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled the country since Mr Mubarak's enforced resignation, announc-ed the arrest of 190 people and said they would be tried before military tribunals.
Muslim protesters attempted to storm St Mena's church in Imbaba on Saturday evening, claiming Christians were holding against her will a woman who had converted to Islam and married a Muslim. Stones and firebombs flew over the heads of soldiers who had been deployed outside the church.
Soldiers also scuffled with Coptic Christians who accused them of not providing enough protection.
The troops eventually advanced on the Muslim protesters, a mix of Imbaba residents and hardline Salafi fundamentalists, forcing them to retreat down the street.
Inside the church, blood pooled on the floor as wounded Christians were rushed in for treatment. Near the altar, the parishioners had wrapped a corpse in a cloth.
The government said 12 people, including at least four Christians and six Muslims, died in the violence.
Muslim protesters also set fire to a second church and attacked Coptic-owned businesses. They insisted Christians had fired on them when they went to the church to negotiate the woman's release.
The Coptic Christians denied they were holding any converts. Coptic Christians account for roughly 10pc of the country's 80 million people, and they have long complained of state-sanctioned discrimination. (© Daily Telegraph, London)