Egyptian Christians mourned their dead and berated the army on Monday after at least 25 people were killed when troops crushed a protest about an attack on a church in the worst violence since the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
Armoured personnel carriers sped into the crowd late on Sunday to break up the demonstrators near the state television building. Videos posted on the Internet showed mangled bodies. Activists said corpses had been crushed by the vehicles.
Tension between Muslims and minority Coptic Christians has simmered for years but has worsened since the anti-Mubarak revolt, which has allowed the emergence of Salafist and other strict Islamist groups that the former president had repressed.
Muslim and Christian activists said much of the anger from Sunday's violence was focused on the army, which has also come under fire from across the political spectrum for failing to give a clear timetable for handing power to civilians.
"Why didn't they do this with the Salafists or the Muslim Brotherhood when they organise protests? This is not my country any more," said Alfred Younan, a Copt speaking near Cairo's Coptic Christian hospital where many of the dead were taken.
The violence casts a shadow over Egypt's first parliamentary poll since Mubarak fell. Voting starts on Nov. 28.
"Instead of advancing to build a modern state of democratic principles, we are back searching for security and stability, worrying that there are hidden hands, both domestic and foreign, seeking to obstruct the will of Egyptians in establishing a democracy," Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said on state television.
"We will not surrender to these malicious conspiracies and we will not accept reverting back," he said on Monday before an emergency meeting of the full cabinet later in the day.
Christians, who make up 10 percent of Egypt's roughly 80 million people, took to the streets after blaming Muslim radicals for partially demolishing a church in Aswan province last week. They also demanded the sacking of the province's governor for failing to protect the building.
The Health Ministry said 24 people were killed and 272 people wounded, including 253 who were taken to hospital. State media later put the toll at 25 dead, the bulk of them Copts.
Justice Minister Mohamed Abdel Aziz el-Guindy said the investigation and any trials would be handled by military courts. State newspaper Al Ahram said 15 people were being investigated. State media had said dozens were detained.
Streets near the state television building had been largely cleared of debris on Sunday, but smashed and burned vehicles lined streets in the area near the Coptic hospital, which was also the scene of violence overnight.
"The army was very violent in dealing with all these demonstrations ... and they are being very violent as they know they will not be held accountable and will use such protests to increase repression in Egypt," said Gamal Eid of the Arab Network For Human Rights Information.
"That is evidence that the military has to leave power as soon as possible," he said.
The clashes add to the growing frustration of pro-democracy activists with the generals who took over from Mubarak. Many Egyptians suspect the army wants to wield power from behind the scenes even as it hands day-to-day government to civilians.
The ruling army council denies this.
"We note Prime Minister Sharaf's call for an investigation, and appeal to all parties to remain calm," the U.S. embassy said in a statement, expressing condolences to the families.
European Union ministers expressed alarm and said the authorities had a duty to protect religious minorities.
"We really do expect that Egypt will move towards its elections with the desire to see all people as part of those elections and to protect the people whoever they are, wherever they come from and whatever belief and faith they have," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg.
Egyptian presidential candidate Amr Moussa said he would join political groups and others at an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss the violence. He told Reuters it was important that the incident did not derail the election timetable.
"I hope that this will not happen. I hope we are going to do as agreed, that there will be election and we will move forward. We don't want a delay in the process," he said.
The army has yet to announce a date for a presidential election. A staggered parliamentary vote that lasts till March followed by drawing up a new constitution could push the vote back to the end of 2012 or early 2013, leaving presidential powers in the hands of the military council until then.
Moussa and other presidential hopefuls have demanded a swifter presidential vote on April 1.
Protests erupted elsewhere in Egypt including its second biggest city, Alexandria. Copts say promises by the new rulers to address their concerns and protect them have been ignored.
"The new emerging faction of Islamists and Salafists has created havoc since the January revolution ... The problem is the severe reluctance of the cabinet and the authorities to enforce the rule of law and protect the Copts," Youssef Sidhom, editor in chief of a Orthodox Coptic newspaper, al-Watani.
Christians complain of discrimination, citing rules that they say make it easier to build a mosque than a church. Tensions have often in the past flared over inter-faith romantic relationships, church building and other issues.
But since Mubarak's removal on Feb. 11, incidents have spun into violence more swiftly. Christians say no one has been tried yet for the burning of a church in Helwan, south of Cairo, in March, after which 13 people were killed, or for violence in the Cairo suburb of Imbaba on May 7 that cost 15 lives. (Additional reporting by Tamim Elyan, Maha El Dahan, Dina Zayed and Tom Pfeiffer in Cairo, and David Brunnstrom in Luxembourg; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alistair Lyon)
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