Nineteen people were killed in Cairo on Sunday when Christians, some carrying crosses and pictures of Jesus, clashed with military police, medical and security sources said, in the latest sectarian flare-up in a country in political turmoil.
Christians protesting against an attack on a church threw rocks and petrol bombs and set cars on fire, as thick smoke wafted through the streets in some of the most violent scenes since an uprising ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February.
Hundreds fought with sticks on a Cairo bridge and protests later spread to Tahrir Square, the focal point of the February uprising, as Muslims joined the rally out of solidarity.
Smoke from tear gas swirled over the square as thousands of protesters chanted The people demand the fall of the field marshal, referring to the head of Egypt's army council which now rules the country.
A Reuters witness said the army had moved in to contain the unrest, beating some protesters with batons.
State TV and sources said at least 150 people were injured on Sunday, without saying how many of them were protesters. It had earlier said three of those killed were soldiers.
Medical and security sources have told Reuters that at least 19 people were killed.
Tensions between Christians and Muslims have increased since the uprising. The latest violence comes just weeks before a parliamentary election on November 28, the first such vote since Mubarak was ousted.
The government has appealed for calm. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said he had contacted security and church authorities to 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.
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.
Cabinet spokesman Mohamed Hegazy told Reuters the cabinet would hold a special session on Monday to discuss the events.
The most important thing is to contain the situation, see the way forward and the necessary measures to avoid any ramifications, Mohamed Hegazy said, adding that a committee which includes prominent figures from the church and Al-Azhar mosque, would also meet on Monday.
More than four vehicles were set ablaze and TV footage showed protesters breaking windows of parked cars and army personnel carriers driving full speed toward crowds of protesters.
Pictures of smashed faces and dead bodies of what activists said were bodies run over by military vehicles circulated online, with angry comments comparing the violence used by the military to that of Mubarak's police during the uprising.
Gun shots were heard and witnesses said crowds of protesters carried bodies as tear gas filled the air. It was unclear who was shooting.
We were marching peacefully, Talaat Youssef, 23-year old Christian trader told Reuters at the scene.
When we got to the state television building, the army started firing live ammunition, he said, adding army vehicles ran over protesters, killing five. His account could not be immediately confirmed.
The army is supposed to be protecting us, Youssef said.
Thousands of Christians protested in Cairo and Alexandria on Sunday over the attack, chanting against the ruling military council and its head, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
A military official speaking to state TV said the situation was now under control and the army's morale was high.
This will not affect the morale of the armed forces. We are fighters. This is a very normal situation. We are one people and one nation, said General Hamdeen Badeen, the head of military police, adding that those responsible for the violence would be held to account.
After the clashes in front of the state television building, protests in provinces with large Christian populations were reported by local newspapers. Their accounts could not be verified independently.
Scuffles broke out between Coptic protesters in Alexandria and Muslim bystanders, witnesses said.
The protesters want the government to fire the governor of Aswan Province, Mostafa al-Sayed, after the partial demolition of the church on Friday. Egyptian media said Muslims were accused of attacking the church after talk spread in the town that the building did not have legal authorisation.
In May, twelve people were killed in a sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims after rumours that Christians were holding a woman who had converted to Islam.
The incident led the country's ruling military council to order the drafting of new laws to criminalise sectarian violence and ease restrictions on building churches.
Egyptian officials said they would investigate the causes of Sunday's violence, calling for calm.
We need unity more than any other time before, Information Minister Osama Heikal told state television.