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16 December 2007

Egyptian police arrest 7 after Christian shops burned

e8254ba88df3bada3f91dea86003efc6.jpgce9921fcfbf8053df3e60f2220493f54.jpgCAIRO, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Police arrested at least seven Egyptian Muslims after a riot in the southern city of Isna on Sunday that left at least 13 Christian-owned shops smashed up or burned and a church front damaged, security sources said.

They said a car and a motorcycle owned by Christians were also burned and it appeared the rioters had attempted to burn the church.

Tensions have been high in the city for several days with a number of incidents threatening to escalate into sectarian clashes. Police have upgraded their presence.

The tensions appear to have started when an angry crowd of Muslims surrounded and smashed up a Christian-owned store on Wednesday, where they suspected a Muslim girl was having sex with two Christian boys. Police beefed up security in the city after that incident.

Sunday's riot comes after an altercation last night that saw a Christian shop-owner accuse a Muslim woman of stealing a mobile phone from his shop. The woman was cleared by authorities and released.

Egypt suffered its worst Christian-Muslim clashes in decades in 1999 in southern Egypt when 20 Christians were killed, 22 people wounded and scores of shops destroyed.

Last year, a 45-year-old Muslim man stabbed a Coptic Christian man to death and wounded five others in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, sparking three days of sectarian clashes in which one Muslim was killed. Egypt says the attacker was mentally ill.

Christians account for up to 10 percent of the population of Egypt and relations between them and the Muslim majority are usually harmonious. Disputes, most commonly over land, religious buildings or young women, sometimes lead to violence. (Writing by Aziz El-Kaissouni; Editing by Janet Lawrence) (aziz.el-kaissouni@reuters.com; +20 2 2578 3290/1; aziz.el-kaissouni.reuters.com@reuters.net))

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