Saturday, May 14, 2011

Thousands rally for Egyptian unity

Thousands rally for Egypt unity

14 May 2011

Thousands of people rallied in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday calling for national unity, after attacks on Egyptian churches, and for solidarity with the Palestinians.

Protesters later broke off and joined a rally outside the Israeli embassy calling for the expulsion of the ambassador. Soldiers guarding it fired in the air to repel them.

In Tahrir, some held up crosses and others waved Palestinian flags as the numbers swelled in Cairo's iconic square, the epicentre of protests that overthrew president Hosni Mubarak in February after an 18-day uprising.

"If you attack a Christian, you're attacking all Egyptians," said one man delivering a speech at a podium.

"The churches attacked in Imbaba are not less than the mosques attacked in Jerusalem," he said, linking the two themes of Friday's protest.

"National unity was there during the revolt but the remnants of the old regime want to destroy the country," said Ahmed Muhanna, who wore a green headband bearing the words "the army of Mohammed."

A Coptic priest took the podium, in front of a big banner that said "national unity" and "Palestinian reconciliation", to plead for tolerance.

"We all worship the same god in our churches and mosques," he said.

But most Coptic protesters stayed away from Tahrir, choosing instead to gather in front of the nearby state television building, where Christians have staged a sit-in since clashes on Saturday.

The thousands of Coptic protesters outside the state television building held wooden crosses and chanted against hardline Islamist fundamentalists.

"We are going to church to pray, no matter what happens to us," they chanted.

Twelve people were killed in the weekend violence after Muslims surrounded a church in Cairo demanding the handover of a woman they said Christians had detained after she converted to Islam and left her Christian husband to marry a Muslim.

The Muslims also set fire to a second church.

The woman who sparked the clashes was arrested on Thursday, along with the Muslim man said to be her husband. She is accused of having more than one husband, a judicial source said.

The unrest threatened to drive Egypt's often tense religious tensions to the brink, prompting the military to arrest more than 200 people it said will swiftly be tried.

Activists had called for a mass show of unity on Friday, which has become a regular day of protest after the weekly Muslim prayers at noon.

The demonstrators in Tahrir waved Palestinian flags as they listened to speeches denouncing Israel and chanted in support of Palestinians.

A cleric who gave the Friday sermon accused Arab rulers of "selling" the Palestinians in order to keep their positions.

One of the protesters, 17-year-old Mahmud Gamal, had painted the colours of the Palestinian flag on his face.

"We are all Arabs. We all need to be united," he said. Some other protesters held Tunisian and Syrian flags and chanted for pan-Arab solidarity.

The protest outside the Israeli embassy remained peaceful, but the demonstrators blocked traffic after the soldiers fired in the air to repel them as they chanted "we are going in."

The Palestinian-flag waving demonstrators pointed at the Israeli flag at teh the top of the residential building that houses the embassy and chanted: "Take it down! Burn it!"

An Egyptian peace treaty with Israel is widely unpopular among Egyptians because of the Jewish state's policies towards Palestinians.

Activists have called for a march to neighbouring Gaza at the weekend to show solidarity with the Palestinians as they mark the "Nakba" or "catastrophe" which befell them following Israel's establishment in 1948.

But authorities blocked access to the Sinai Peninsula bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip in anticipation of protesters who intend to set off from Tahrir on Saturday, an AFP correspondent said.

The cleric who preached in Tahrir Square also denounced the sectarian tensions that have plagued Egypt for decades, although both Muslims and Copts took part in the protests that overthrew Mubarak.

"Egyptians, you were united by Tahrir Square, and now Camilia Shehata divides you," he said, referring to a priest's wife Islamists claim was detained by the Coptic Church after converting to Islam.

Shehata went on television last week and denied those allegations.

Copts account for up to 10 percent of the country's 80 million people. They complain of discrimination, and have been the target of repeated sectarian attack.

The most recent violence has been blamed on a hardline Islamist sect, the Salafists, who have regularly staged protests demanding the church release women they believe converted to Islam.

The sect was mostly apolitical under Mubarak, but since February it has grown more assertive, and its leaders say they will form parties to contest a parliamentary election in September.

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