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Third Day of Sectarian Violence Rocks Egyptian City

A second person has died in the Egyptian city of Alexandria after clashes between Muslims and Christians. The violence erupted when a man with a knife attacked worshipers at several churches Friday, killing one man and wounding up to 16 people. Fighting between the two religious groups continued for a third day on Sunday, and a man died of injuries he received in fighting on Saturday.

Police in Alexandria fired tear gas into crowds of rioting Muslims and Christians as a third day of sectarian violence rocked the ancient Mediterranean city.

Friday's knife attacks in several Coptic Christian churches set off a cascade of violence on Saturday, after the funeral of an elderly man who was stabbed to death in church. The clashes continued on Sunday, when Orthodox Copts were marking the Palm Sunday holy day.

Police have arrested a man they say carried out all of Friday's knife attacks by himself, moving from church to church. They describe him as mentally ill.

Reporter Vivian Salama of the Daily Star Egypt newspaper is in Alexandria. She says there are many questions about what exactly happened on Friday, and the doubts are fueling Coptic anger.

Parishioners who witnessed the attack at one church say the description of the man the police have in custody does not match the man they saw with the knife. And, they told Salama, the two churches are on opposite sides of town, 45-minutes to an hour away from each other. "So they were saying that it was absolutely impossible that he could have run [between them] in such a short time. They believe, several of them actually said to me that they believe this is a cover-up, a conspiracy by the government so that they don't instigate further tensions, [and] by saying that he's someone who is insane, someone who is mentally ill as well," she said.

Salama says despite the violence, residents of Alexandria are not looking at this as a sign of larger problems between Muslims and Christians. "Generally speaking the Copts seem to think, as they were coming out of Palm Sunday mass, that really this is not even a sectarian issue, they feel like there is a serious issue with security here in Alexandria… They seem to think that their security is not a priority for the police and for the Egyptian government," she said.

That feeling of insecurity is especially high in the wake of the anti-Christian violence that rocked Alexandria in October after Muslims attacked churches for allegedly distributing a DVD that they deemed offensive to Islam.

Salama says most of the Alexandria Muslims she has spoken to about the latest attacks are just as shocked and appalled as their Christian neighbors. "They all feel they have actually been sort of victimized by this entire thing," she said. "They all insist that, one man told me, quote, these are outside forces coming to ruin relations within Egypt and to destroy the peace that we have had."

Despite the renewed clashes on Sunday, a leading Coptic columnist for the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, Milad Hanna, believes things will settle down soon. "The Christians are not [an] aggressive group. They are, on the contrary, they are over-patient, more than what they should have done. And the Muslims, in the last analysis, they like the Copts, and the back history of the relations between the two main religions, Islam and Christianity, is healthy and good. Therefore I think things will cool off," he said.

Coptic Christians are about nine percent of Egypt's population of 78-million. They are the largest Christian population in the Middle East.