CAIRO: Attackers in a car raked a crowd of shoppers in a south Egypt town with gunfire, killing a policemen and six Coptic Christians on the eve of their Christmas celebrations, a security official said on Thursday.
The drive-by shooting took place late Wednesday in the southern Egyptian town of Nagaa Hammadi as Copts were preparing for Christmas which they celebrate January 7 along with other Orthodox communities, the official said.
Witnesses however gave a conflicting account of the attack, saying the gunmen struck as worshippers emerged from midnight mass at the main church in Nagaa Hammadi.
“Three unidentified individuals in a car opened fire on Christians in a shopping district as they were making purchases for Christmas,” the security official said, as cited by state-run MENA news agency.
Nine other Copts were wounded in the shooting, he added.
The gunmen also opened fire “in front of a convent located in an rural area” near the town, in the province of Qana, 700 kilometres south of Cairo, the official said.
Witnesses, cited by local officials, said the main gunman, a Muslim, is wanted by police and linked the incident to the abduction of a 12-year-old Muslim girl in November who was allegedly raped by a Coptic youth.
“The first elements of the investigation, based on testimony of people on the ground, indicate that the main shooter is a town resident identified as Mohammed Ahmed Hussein, who is wanted by the police,” one official said.
In November, hundreds of Muslim protesters torched Christian-owned shops in the town of Farshut, near Nagaa Hammadi, and attacked a police station where they believed the suspected rapist was being held.
That incident was the latest in a string of sectarian tensions in 2009 between Muslims and Egypt’s Copts – the Middle East’s largest Christian community who represent roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s 80-million population.
Copts have complained over the years of frequent discrimination, harassment and that they are the targets of sectarian attacks. They also allege they are overlooked in top jobs in the army, police and judiciary.
On Wednesday, the head of the Coptic minority, Pope Shenuda III, led a Christmas midnight mass at the Abbassiya church in Cairo which was attended by thousands of worshippers.
Gamal Mubarak, the son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak who has been widely tipped as being the next head of state, was among several prominent figures who attended the mass, an AFP photographer said. —AFP