LUXOR, Egypt (AP) — Police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of Muslim protesters trying to storm a Coptic Christian church in southern Egypt Friday, after a word spread that a Christian man sexually assaulted a 6-year-old girl.
Witnesses in Marashda village in the province of Qena said several shops and cars owned by Coptic Christians were torched overnight after Muslim villagers accused a merchant in his sixties of molesting the young girl.
Violence flared again after Friday prayers, with witnesses saying protesters surrounded the village's central Abu Fam church, hurling stones and trying to storm it. Some climbed the church walls and destroyed a cross atop it. Police fired tear gas to scatter the crowd.
Qena security director Gen. Salah Mazid was quoted in state media as saying that police are investigating the accusations against the merchant, who turned himself in at a nearby police station.
A resident who lives next to the church blamed extremist Islamists for spreading news of the accusations in order to enrage crowds and incite an attack on the church.
"They are terrorizing us. They try to find a reason to attack us," said the resident, asking not to be named for fear of retribution. "In no time, this village turned to a ball of fire."
"We know those behind it," he said, referring to the Group for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, an organization which he said over the past two months has been visiting cafes and ordering people not to smoke. They force Muslims to go to the mosque to pray, he added.
The villages of Qena are among the poorest in Egypt. They also have a significant Coptic Christian population.
Flare-ups of violence between Egypt's Christians and Muslims have become more frequent in the two years President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising, an event that also left the country's security weakened.
"We want law enforcement, not mass punishment of all Christians for an individual mistake," said Coptic activist Hana Hasseb. "What is the guilt of all of those whose stores were set ablaze?"
Egyptian Christians fear that the power vacuum that has followed Mubarak's overthrow is giving ultraconservatives and extremist Muslims a freer hand to attack churches and Coptic property.
Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the country's 85 million people, have long complained of discrimination by the state. They are the largest Christian community in the Middle East.
Violence is usually sparked by church construction, land disputes or Muslim-Christian love affairs.
Meanwhile, in the capital, thousands of Egyptian protesters marched to demand justice for victims of a violent rampage at a soccer game that left 74 people dead last year.
The rampage last February in the Mediterranean city of Port Said was one of the world's bloodiest cases of soccer-related violence, sparking a wave of protests against Egypt's security forces by zealous fans known as Ultras. They blame security in part for the deaths, saying they allowed one group of fans to attack another.
Ultras played a major role in protests against the former regime and subsequent military rulers, and have long clashed with police. Friday's protest comes a week before a court is set to rule on the melee. Senior police officers are among the 73 on trial.