Measure comes a week after the worst street violence since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11 [AFP]

Egypt's military rulers have issued a decree prohibiting all forms of discrimination, after clashes between soldiers and Christians killed 26 people in the country's worst violence since a revolt this year.

Saturday's amendment to the criminal code states a punishment of a fine of no less than $5,000 for discrimination based on "gender, origin, language, religion or beliefs".

"I am not very optimistic that the current government will be able to protect the rights of its citizens and implement this law in the face of growing popular support of religious extremist groups"

- Nader Shoukri, reseacher

The punishment for a government employee found guilty of breaking the new rules is at least three months in prison or a minimum fine of $16,800, the council said in a statement published on Saturday.

The caretaker cabinet said on Thursday that it would discuss the sensitive issue of building permits for Christian churches at the heart of sectarian tensions in the overwhelmingly Muslim country.

The announcement came as nearly 3,000 mourners gathered in central Cairo for a candlelight vigil in honour of Coptic Christians among 26 people killed in weekend clashes during a demonstration over an attack on a church.

The military, in power since a popular uprising toppled president Hosni Mubarak in February, has denied Coptic witness accounts that its soldiers fired on the demonstrators and ordered an investigation.

Copts, who comprise about 10 per cent of Egypt's 80 million population, say the laws on obtaining building or renovation permits for churches are overly restrictive, and that Muslims enjoy a much more liberal system for mosques.

Hafez Abou Saada, head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, described the decree as a limited but positive symbolic step.

Nader Shoukri, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said on Saturday that the law is meant "to contain the crisis but laws are not the issue, the bigger challenge is to put it into effect''.

"I am not very optimistic that the current government will be able to protect the rights of its citizens and implement this law in the face of growing popular support of religious extremist groups,'' he added.

Source: Agencies