Two Christian protesters were reportedly hit by gunfire during their sit-in near the state television building [Al Jazeera]

Clashes between Coptic Christians and unidentified assailants at a sit-in near the state television building in Cairo have left 78 people injured, the Egyptian health ministry said.

The head of the Coptic church in Egypt called on Sunday for his followers to end their protests, following the sporadic fighting that lasted for several hours.

During the fighting, two Christian protesters were hit by gunfire that came from a car parked on a bridge above the protest, the Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Youm reported.

Earlier on Sunday, state television reported that two people had died as a result of the fighting, but the health ministry said on Sunday that none had been killed.

Coptic sit-in

The fighting began at around 9pm Saturday night, when dozens of men from poor neighbourhoods in the vicinity of the state television building attacked a Christian sit-in with stones, Molotov cocktails and live ammunition, witnesses said.

Al Jazeera's Rawya Rageh reports from Cairo on Coptic Christians protesting 'lack of protection' against attacls

The protesters were armed with clubs and metal chains and could be seen throwing rocks and their own petrol bombs, they said.

Demonstrators had earlier prevented a motorist from driving through the sit-in, prompting him to fire at them with birdshot, the Associated Press news agency reported, citing a security official. The protesters chased the man down and beat him, which may have inspired at least some of the members of the mob that returned to attack the protest, the news agency said.

Military troops formed a cordon to separate the sit-in from the attackers, fired into the air and used tear gas to stop the fighting early on Sunday.

At least 10 cars were set ablaze and 50 people were arrested, interior ministry sources said.  

Four hours after the start of clashes, state television announced that the military had intervened and succeeded in restoring order.

Alfred Raouf, a witness on the scene, said armoured vehicles later blocked traffic and pedestrians from going down from the bridge toward the protest area.

Protesters at the sit-in had numbered in the thousands earlier in the day, but many left during the night. Those remaining insisted the demonstration would continue as their area was cordoned off by security, Raouf said.

In a separate incident, an explosion occurred near the tomb of a prominent Muslim sheikh in the Sinai peninsula, the state-run Middle East News Agency said.

There were no further details about the Sinai blast, but the latest unrest puts further pressure on Egypt's military rulers to ensure stability and security, following a popular revolt that forced out former president Hosni Mubarak in February.

Sectarian divide

Although Muslims and Christians came together to overthrow Mubarak, interfaith tensions have since grown and 12 people have been killed and more than 200 injured in recent clashes.

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Sectarian strife often flares in Egypt over conversions, family disputes and the construction of churches.

Last Saturday, violent confrontations between some of Egypt's majority Muslims and minority Christians prompted angry protests by Egyptians from both faiths, with calls for the country's army rulers to use an "iron fist" against the instigators.

Last week's clashes broke out after Muslims surrounded a church in Cairo to demand the handover of a woman they said Christians had detained after she converted to Islam and left her Christian husband to marry a Muslim.

Egypt's interim ruling military council vowed on Friday to use all means to crack down on what they called "deviant groups" threatening stability and security.

Copts account for up to 10 per cent of the country's more than 80 million people. They complain of discrimination, and have been the target of repeated sectarian attacks.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies