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Egyptian Christians Occupy Cairo Square to Protest Religious Violence

Egyptian Copts, one holding a banner with a picture of Jesus Christ and writing in Arabic reading "Christ, Our God, is alive", demonstrate against the overnight sectarian violence, in downtown Cairo, Egypt Sunday, May 8, 2011.

Thousands of Coptic Christians protesting Egypt's latest round of deadly sectarian violence are calling for the removal of the country's top military ruler, and are vowing not to leave a sit-in outside the state television building in Cairo.

By late Sunday, demonstrators were demanding that Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi step down and that the arsonists who burned two Coptic churches be brought to justice. Protesters also want to make it a crime to instigate religious violence. Earlier in the day, fighting broke out when Muslim youths attacked the protesters.

State media have reported that 12 people were killed and more than 220 wounded during two days of sectarian clashes that began late Saturday in the poverty-stricken Cairo slum of Imbaba. Medical sources said 65 of the injured were shot.

Witnesses say a group of about 500 conservative Salafist Muslims converged on a Coptic church in response to rumors that a Christian woman was being held there to prevent her from converting to Islam. Other reports said the crowd believed the woman had already converted and was being prevented from marrying a Muslim man.

Egypt's civilian leaders have promised a swift response to the clashes, including more security at houses of worship and a new ban on demonstrations outside churches and mosques. Military leaders said Sunday that 190 people detained in connection with the violence will face trial in a military court.

Hundreds of heavily armed riot police deployed to Imbaba Sunday, stationing military vehicles near churches and blocking access to the Church of St. Mina, where the fighting began.

Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf canceled a tour of neighboring Gulf states and called an emergency Cabinet meeting in response to the clashes.

Reports say members of the crowd began throwing firebombs and stones, setting some nearby buildings aflame. Security forces fired shots in the air and used tear gas to separate the two sides.

Members of Egypt's extreme Salafi movement have been blamed for other recent attacks on Christians that have met with little interference from the country's military rulers.

Interfaith relationships are a source of tension in Egypt, where Coptic Christians comprise about 10 percent of the country's population of 80 million.