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Muslims attack Coptic Christians in northern Egypt

CAIRO — Muslims attacked a community center and burned several homes belonging to Coptic Christians in northwestern Egypt over the weekend, injuring 23 people, in a rampage that a local bishop said was incited by a radical Muslim preacher.

The rioting began Friday when a group of young men hurled rocks at the church community center in Marsa-Matruh, a city along Egypt's Mediterranean coast. The attacks then spread to nearby homes and left behind destroyed cars and other property.

Copts, who make up most of the 8 million Christians in a country of 80 million people, generally live in peace with Muslims but violence occasionally occurs. Human rights groups say attacks on Copts are on the rise, underscoring the government's failure to address chronic sectarian strains in a society where religious radicalism is gaining ground.

Hussein Fekry, the local security chief, told Egyptian TV on Saturday that the clashes were limited and were provoked by a new fence built around the community center.

The church's local bishop, Father Bejemy, said, however, that the rioters were responding to a Friday prayer sermon at a nearby mosque calling for jihad against infidels, a reference to non-Muslims among extremists.

The bishop said the attackers broke the community center's gate, several windows and destroyed trees. Later, they lobbed firebombs at Christian homes and destroyed cars, he said. A group of Copts took refuge in the community center and were holed up there for 10 hours while security forces brought the situation under control.

Of the 23 Copts wounded, three remained hospitalized in critical condition Saturday, Bejemy said.

"If the fence is the real problem, I agreed to remove it. I just hope it is the real problem," Bejemy said in a telephone interview from Marsa-Matruh. "I am not sure if this violence is only because of one fanatic who didn't act wisely or if the situation is bigger than this. Only days will tell."

Twenty Muslims and Christians were arrested on suspicion of taking part in the disturbance, a police officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Nader Shokry, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which tracks religious violence, said residents of the area also said the Muslim cleric's sermon was inflammatory and probably in response to prayers held in the community center.