Some worshippers turn to alternative churches because of more lenient rules on separation.
|Egypt’s interim prime minister has called for calm and warned against ‘sowing the seeds of division’ [Al Jazeera]|
Cairo remains tense after clashes left at least 26 people dead and over 320 injured in the worst violence in the Egyptian capital since the country’s revolution in February.
Al Jazeera obtained the latest figures from a security source who cited health ministry officials.
An overnight curfew was lifted on Monday but dozens of people have been arrested, according to state media reports, and a heavy security presence remained on the streets near Tahrir Square.
Sunday’s clashes followed a Coptic protest over the recent destruction of a church in southern Egypt, but Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros said the flashpoint demonstration had brought other frustrated factions onto the streets.
“There were people on the streets from all different sectors of society. Copts, Muslims, other Christians, secularists, other political groups, there were even Salafists out there,” our correspondent said.
“What united them was not anything to do with sectarian issues or demands but actually a frustration directed at the army for what they feel is the army’s betrayel of the revolution.
“This is why it will be so important for the authorities in the coming hours to try and supply answers to the people,” she said. “People want to see accountability and justice.”
MENA, Egypt’s official news agency, reported on Monday that “instigators of chaos” had been arrested, but did not reveal any further details about the identities of those detained.
Hossam Bahgat, from the Egyptian initiative for personal rights, told Al Jazeera that Sunday night’s clashes were unprecedented.
“There is nothing like what we saw yesterday, because it was the army,” he said. “For the first time [the Christians] are not being attacked by Muslim extremists or police security forces, but by the army. We don’t understand why the army resorted to such measures.”
“There needs to be an independent investigation into the attacks, and it should not be carried out by the army.”
Essam Sharaf, Egypt’s interim prime minister, called for calm early on Monday morning and was due to host an emergency cabinet meeting later in the day.
His cabinet said in a statement that it would “not let any group manipulate the issue of national unity in Egypt or delay the process of democratic transformation” which it said would begin with opening the doors to candidate nominations.
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A committee of prominent figures from the Coptic church and Al-Azhar mosque are also due to meet on Monday, while presidential candidate Amr Moussa and political groups said they would meet to discuss the violence.
The Copts say they were marching peacefully when thugs attacked them, drawing in the military police who used what activists described as unnecessary force.
Security sources said that demonstrators torched two armoured vehicles, six private cars and a public bus.
The protesters had gathered outside the television building, and from there the clashes spread to nearby Tahrir Square and the area around it, drawing in thousands of people.
They battled each other with stones and firebombs, some tearing up pavements and collecting stones in boxes for use as missiles.
At one point, a group of youths with at least one riot policeman among them dragged a protester by his legs for a long distance.
During the protest, demonstrators burnt photos of Mustafa al-Sayed, the governor of Aswan province where the church was destroyed.
The church in Merinab village was attacked after al-Sayed was reported as saying Copts had built it without the required planning permission.
Al Jazeera’s Rawya Rageh, reporting from Cairo, said “utter chaos” prevailed in the centre of the capital.
Rageh said: “It was supposed to be a peaceful protest, demanding that Coptic rights should be fulfilled. But it soon escalated into violence, with people on balconies pelting the demonstrators with stones, clearly disagreeing with the cause of the Coptic demonstrators.”
Up to 10 per cent of Egypt’s more than 80 million people are Copts.
Tensions are not uncommon between Copts and some of the country’s Muslim majority. In March, 13 people were killed in sectarian clashes around the Cairo neighbourhood of Manshiyet Nasser after a church was torched in the village of Sol, south of the capital.