News / Africa

Christian Shot Dead in Egypt Train Attack

Egyptian authorities say an off-duty Muslim police officer boarded a train Tuesday and opened fire, killing a Christian man and wounding five others, including the victim's wife and three other women.

Egypt's Interior Ministry says the gunman, Amer Ashour Abdel-Zaher, boarded the train at the town of Samalout in Egypt's central Minya province, south of the capital.

Security officials say police arrested the attacker at his nearby home after he fled the scene, and that an investigation is underway.

Soon after the attack, hundreds of angry Coptic Christians gathered outside the hospital where the wounded were being treated to demand the government do more to protect them. The Reuters news agency, citing security sources, says police used tear gas to disperse them.

No motive has been established for the shooting. While it is not clear if Abdel-Zaher knew the religious faith of his victims, Christian women stand out in the conservative south since, unlike Muslim women, they generally do not wear headscarves.

The train originated in the city of Assiut which, like Samalout, is home to a substantial Christian community.

The shooting comes less than two weeks after a suicide bomber killed 23 Christians and wounded nearly 100 outside a church in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria. The New Year's bombing was the country's deadliest sectarian attack in years.

Meanwhile, Egypt recalled its Vatican ambassador for consultations as it dismissed a call issued by Pope Benedict for increased protection of Christian minorities as "unacceptable interference" in Egypt's internal affairs.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said Tuesday that Egypt will "not allow non-Egyptians to interfere" in its affairs under any pretext.

Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayyib of al-Azhar University, a leading Islamic institute in the Sunni Muslim world, also characterized the protection of Christians as an internal issue and rejected "foreign interference" in the affairs of Arab and Islamic countries.

The pope Monday condemned recent attacks on churches that killed dozens of people in Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria, saying they showed the need to adopt effective measures to protect religious minorities.

His comments were part of a strongly-worded defense of the rights of Christians living in majority-Muslim countries.  In it, the pope also urged Pakistan to repeal a controversial anti-blasphemy law that carries a death sentence for insulting Islam.

Christians, mostly Orthodox Copts, account for about 10 percent of Egypt's population, which is mainly Sunni Muslim. Sectarian violence sometimes erupts in disputes over issues related to church building, religious conversions and interfaith relationships.

Egyptian officials insist they are capable of protecting all citizens and said there are indications that "foreign elements" were behind the January 1 blast in Alexandria. An al-Qaida-linked Iraqi group threatened in November to attack Egyptian Christians.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.

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