Thousands of protesting Christians clashed with with the Egyptian military in Cairo Sunday, resulting in at least 19 deaths, officials said. The fierce, bloody battle left many in shock as the Christian protesters said their demonstration began peacefully -- and they wanted it to remain that way.
Instead, it became yet another sectarian flare-up -- and a deadly one at that -- for Egypt, a nation in political turmoil.
The Christians were protesting the burning of a Coptic Christian church which occurred the week before. They were marching peacefully, participants said, toward the Egyptian state television building in Cairo located alongside the Nile.
Protestors held signs during their march demanding equality and protection of Coptic places of worship. Some carried crosses, and pictures of Jesus as they marched, according to a report.
The protest was peaceful. We wanted to hold a sit-in, as usual, Essam Khalili, a protester wearing a white shirt with a cross drawn on it, told the Press Association.
But the Christian march turned into a deadly riot which spread to nearby Tahrir Square and the area around it. Thousands of people were drawn into the the riots, which which left 19 dead, mostly civilians, and more than 180 injured, according to Egypt's Health Ministry officials. Among the casualties, three army officers were killed and at least 20 were injured, according to Alla Mahmoud, an interior ministry spokesman.
Protesters, Coptics and those supportive of their cause, said they came under attack from thugs in plain clothes as they tried to peacefully sit-in near the television station.
Suddenly, we were attacked by thugs carrying swords and clubs, one protester, Magdi Hanna, told CNN.
Witnesses said the groups battled each other with rocks and firebombs. They said some tore up paving for ammunition, while others collected stones in boxes, according to the Press Association. Christians reportedly set cars on fire and thick smoke was seen wafting through the streets.
The scenes and deadly results were among the worst in Egypt since an uprising ousted ex-President Hosni Mubarak in February of this year.
At one point, a group of youths with at least one riot policeman among them dragged a protester by his legs for a long distance, said a report.
Coptic Christians comprise about 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million citizens. Many became upset enough to take to the streets after they blamed muslim radicals for partially demolishing the church in Aswan province last week. One report suggested protestors took weapons from Egypt's military police, firing upon them with their own ammunition with live fire.
Some military trucks burned among the carnage left after the riots. But Samir Bolos, one of the demonstrators, said Sunday that some unknown people may have fired at the army, but not us, according to CNN.
TV footage showed protesters breaking windows of parked cars, military personnel carriers driving full speed toward crowds of protesters, and some Coptic protesters attacking a soldier while a priest tried to protect him. One soldier collapsed in tears as ambulances rushed to the scene to take away the injured, according to The Associated Press.
As many Christians blame Egypt's ruling military council for being too lenient on those behind a spate of anti-Christian attacks since the ouster of Mubarak in February, Egypt's government appealed for calm. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said he had contacted security and church authorities to try and contain the situation.
The only beneficiary of these events and acts of violence are the enemies of the January revolution and the enemies of the Egyptian people, both Muslim and Christian, he said on his Facebook page.