An off-duty policeman boarded a train and opened fire on Tuesday, killing a 71-year-old Christian man and wounding his wife and four others, the Interior Ministry said. The attack, less than two weeks after the suicide bombing of a church killed 21, sparked new demonstrations by enraged Christians who pelted police with stones in southern Egypt.
The church attack on worshippers leaving a New Year’s Mass in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria touched off three days of riots and demonstrations by furious Christians who criticized the government for failing to protect them and vented over what they see as persistent discrimination.
All of the casualties in the latest attack were Christians – four of them women – raising concerns it will ignite a new wave of protests by a community still traumatized by the suicide bombing.
Soon after the attack, hundreds of angry Copts gathered outside the hospital where the wounded were being treated in the central Egyptian province of Minya and stoned police.
It was not immediately clear whether the gunman knew his targets were Christians. But four of the five wounded were Christian women who stand out in the conservative south as they would probably not have been wearing headscarves as most Muslim women do.
The ministry statement identified the policeman as Amer Ashour Abdel-Zaher, a 23-year-old Muslim, and said he boarded the Cairo-bound train at the town of Samalout in Minya province and opened fire on the passengers with a handgun.
The statement added that Abdel-Zaher, who was not wearing a uniform, was on his way to work at a town near Samalout. Police arrested him at his nearby home after he fled the scene and he was being questioned, according to the ministry statement.
The train originated in Assiut which, like Samalout, is home to a substantial Christian community.
The Health Ministry said an air ambulance has been dispatched to airlift any critical cases to the capital. Initially the wounded were taken to a government-run hospital, but the families insisted they be transferred to the church-run Good Shepherd Hospital in Samalout, said spokesman Abdel-Rahman Shahine.
Shooting attacks against Christians occasionally take place in Egypt’s impoverished south, usually over commercial disputes, church building or allegations of cross-sectarian relationships.
In January 2010, gunmen opened fire on worshippers leaving a Coptic Christmas Eve church service in southern Egypt, killing six Christians and a Muslim guard.
Many Christians charge that the authorities are not doing enough to protect them and in fact allege some members of the security services turn a blind eye to anti-Christian incidents.
The attack comes as Egypt was bristling at international expressions of concern over the safety of its Christian population and recalled its ambassador to the Vatican following comments by Pope Benedict XVI.
In a speech Monday, Benedict cited recent attacks on Christians in Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria, and said governments must take effective measures to protect religious minorities.
Hossam Zaki, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, described Benedict’s remarks as “unacceptable” and charged him with interfering in the country’s internal affairs.
“Egypt will not allow non-Egyptians to interfere in its internal affairs under any pretext,” he said.
Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib, the imam of the Al-Azhar, the premier institute of Islamic learning in the Sunni Muslim world, also blasted the Pope’s remarks.
“Protection of Christians is an internal affair and should be carried out by the governments as they (the Christians) are their citizens like other citizens,” he said in a statement.
President Hosni Mubarak has repeatedly said that the government will do its utmost to protect Egypt’s Christians and has accused foreign groups of being behind the New Year’s church attack.
The New Year’s suicide attack on the church reopened long festering wounds in a Christian community that says its members feel like second class citizens in their own country due to widespread discrimination.
Coptic Christians demonstrated around the country, including Assiut, in the aftermath of the bombing and called for better protection and equal rights.
Christians make up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s nearly 80 million people.