Thousands of police manned barricades around Christian places of worship in this Mediterranean coastal city on Saturday after seething sectarian tension spilled into the streets when Muslim rioters attacked churches and shops in Egypt's worst Muslim-Christian violence in five years.
Egypt's top Muslim and Christian leaders called for calm on Saturday, a day after 5,000 Muslim rioters rampaged through two predominantly Christian neighborhoods in Alexandria. The violence sparked clashes with rubber bullet-firing police that killed two rioters and two policemen, police and hospital officials said on Saturday on condition of anonymity as they were unauthorized to speak to the media. At least 90 people were injured.
The violence followed a week of protests over a stage play deemed offensive to Muslims and performed two years earlier in the St. George's Coptic Church, which was one of seven churches attacked. While passing by unnoticed at the time, the play was recorded by someone and distributed on DVDs recently, angering a large section of Alexandria's predominantly Muslim community.
Local political leaders and security officials claim local hard-line Islamists were behind the release of the DVDs to coincide with next month's parliamentary elections and tarnish a Coptic Christian candidate nominated to run on the ruling National Democratic Party's (NPD) ticket in Alexandria's impoverished constituency of Ghorbal.
But Maher Khalah, one of two Copts running as NDP candidates throughout this mainly Sunni Muslim country, announced later on Saturday that he was withdrawing from the election race because of the violence and to prevent any reoccurrence.
"This violence is not about the DVD, it is all about the elections," Khalah said.
A senior security official also blamed Islamic extremists for spreading rumors of Copts handing out DVDs showing the play, which is entitled I Was Blind But Now I Can See. The play tells the story of a young Christian who converts to Islam and becomes disillusioned.
Coptic Christians account for about 10 percent of Egypt's 72 million population and generally live in harmony with the Muslim majority.
But violence flares occasionally, particularly in small southern communities. Many Copts also complain of discrimination.
Friday's violence was the bloodiest since January 2000, when 23 mainly Christians were killed after an argument between a Coptic shopkeeper and a Muslim customer in el-Kusheh, south of Cairo, degenerated into street battles with rifles and other weapons, reports the AP. I.L.