Black-uniformed riot police battled to prevent thousands of angry Muslims from storming a church Friday, beating protesters with sticks and firing tear gas in a riot that ended with one person dead and 53 others arrested.
Police said about 90 people, including 20 police officers, were wounded outside St. George Church in this Mediterranean city in what began as a demonstration against a theatrical play deemed offensive to Islam.
The rioters hurled stones that injured police officers, smashed church windows and damaged the white facade of the three-story church, a police official said. They also set a police car on fire and wrecked eight other cars, the Interior Ministry said in a statement. A photographer for The Associated Press saw police fire rubber bullets into the crowd, causing injuries. But the police denied this, saying their men fired rubber bullets only into the air to disperse the crowd.
A police official said protester, Mohammed Zakaraya Hassan, 48, died in hospital after being admitted with severe tear gas inhalation and the effects of being trampled on. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media, said Hassan died of circulatory collapse.
The Interior Ministry described the protesters as "fanatic elements" who "escalated a negative reaction to a play." The ministry said about 5,000 Muslims had marched to the church after Friday noon prayers at the local mosques.
The riot was the latest in a series of incidents at the church in which Muslims have condemned the distribution of a DVD of a play, performed at the church in 2003, that tells the story of a young Christian who converts to Islam and becomes disillusioned.
On Wednesday, a Muslim man stabbed and seriously wounded a novitiate nun inside the church. He was arrested. The church's director, Father Augustinous, said it was difficult to explain the reaction to a one-time performance that took place two years ago.
Previously Augustinous has said the church had nothing to do with the distribution of the DVD of the play, "I was blind but now I can see." He denies it offends Islam as the play's Christian hero is ultimately saved by a Muslim friend. But Muslims who have seen the DVD say the play is insulting.
Security officials accused Islamic fundamentalists of distributing the DVDs to stoke sectarian tension ahead of the general legislative elections that begin on Nov. 9. The Interior Ministry, which is responsible for security in Egypt, has dispatched thousands of police to Alexandria in anticipation of sectarian trouble during the election period.
Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's overwhelmingly Muslim population of 70 million. Accusations of forced conversion are common. Last December, angry Copts protested for four days in Cairo, clashing with police, after the wife of a priest fled her home in southern Egypt to convert to Islam. She later returned home and resumed practicing Christianity, AP reports.