Sunday’s violence, the worst since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February, has stoked anger at the ruling military council. Demonstrators said troops used disproportionate force and added to sectarian tensions in the Muslim-majority country.
Military vehicles raced at the crowd of protesters to disperse them, after Christian demonstrators said “thugs” attacked them. Rights groups said some of those killed were crushed under the wheels. The army denies this.
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people, say Islamists have been using disputes over the legal status of some church buildings to stir up sectarian conflict.
The Justice Ministry was charged with “forming a committee to review all the incidents that occurred in the past few months concerning disputes over churches … to identify those responsible and take appropriate action,” Information Minister Osama Heikal said in a statement on state television.
He referred to cases where churches had been attacked or damaged, including one in Helwan near Cairo in March and another in the capital.
The government would “settle the situation of unlicensed churches”, he said. He did not give details but the comment suggested that the aim was to legalise churches in dispute, as Christians have demanded.
Hundreds of Christians and Muslims gathered in a central Cairo square on Thursday chanting, “Military rule won’t last long” and “Down with the Field Marshal”, a reference to the head of the military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
“This is not sectarian strife, this is a military massacre,” one banner read, referring to Sunday’s clashes.
Many of those in the square carried candles.
In a news conference on Wednesday, generals defended the military’s actions during Sunday’s clashes and denied charges that they had run over protesters or that they had used live ammunition. The army pledged to hunt down those behind the violence and spoke of “foreign elements”.
Activists and a doctor said some of the dead had gunshot wounds.
Christians have long complained of discrimination in Egypt, citing rules that they say make it more difficult to build a church than a mosque. They say they fear a worsening of sectarian violence because of the emergence of Islamist groups that were suppressed under Mubarak.
In Sunday’s protest, Christians who took to the streets accused Muslims of partially demolishing a church in Aswan province at the end of September. Muslims in the village say the building did not have a licence, but deny attacking it. Reuters