At least seven Coptic Christians were killed and another half dozen were wounded - many seriously - after a Thursday morning drive-by shooting after a Christmas midnight mass in Nag Hamadi in Upper Egypt.

Egypt's Coptic Christian community was celebrating midnight mass on Christmas Day, according to the Coptic calendar, when the shooter sprayed a large crowd in front of the church with a hail of gunfire.  Many died on the spot.  Others were taken to the hospital, in serious condition.

Eyewitnesses indicate the crossroads in front of the Virgin Mary Church in Nag Hamadi was crowded because of the Christmas ceremony.  The shooter escaped during the chaos.
Nag Hamadi is 64 kilometers from the famous Temple of Luxor.  It has been racked by sectarian violence since the alleged sexual assault of a Muslim girl by a Christian man, in November.

Muslim residents of the town ransacked, burned and looted Christian homes and shops for five days after the alleged incident.

Said Sadek, professor of political sociology at the American University of Cairo, says that the region of Upper Egypt where Nag Hamadi is located has a tribal culture and that the crime, or violence, or even sex can often take on a sectarian nature.

"In upper Egypt, in particular, they have a tribal culture of honor killing and shame.  In many instances you hear about, you will find either somebody had sexual relations with a Muslim or Christian and then the family learned about it," he said.  "If you remove the issue about religion, there could be violence.  But when you add the different religious factor here, this can lead to sectarian violence, because there is a popular belief in many parts of the Middle East that every sect is trying to use sex to dominate and invade and embarrass the other sect."

Sadek thinks that the crime will take on an added political coloring in Egypt, because of the fact that it occurred on a high religious holiday.

"The picking of the date today - this is the Eastern church's Christmas, of course -- will carry political and sectarian messages and it can lead to a lot of tension between the communities in Egypt.  But it's not unique and we have seen cases like that before," he said.

A number of cases of sectarian and communal violence have taken place in the area around Luxor in recent years, in addition to recent sectarian clashes in the northern port city, Alexandria.

Christians in Nag Hamadi say that they had received numerous threats of revenge in the days leading up to Christmas and that many of them were afraid to attend the midnight mass. The bishop is reported to have cut his sermon short so that worshippers could leave early.