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At least 24 have died and 200 have been injured after street protests turned into violent clashes between the Egyptian army and unarmed protesters of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

The were protesting a lack of government response when mobs torched a number of churches. They were also calling for the repeal of a law that makes it illegal to repair or expand churches without presidential permission — which is rarely granted.

In the video above, Egyptian soldiers and police can be seen beating a lone protester who stumbled and was unable to get away when a line of army and security personnel charged the protesters.

For those on the scene, the rioting seemed to be by the military — reacting violently against unarmed demonstrators asking for their help — and increasingly convinced that it will not be forthcoming. Since March, an estimated 93,000 Egyptian Christians have left the country fearing for their safety, according to the Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Youm.

Independent journalist Issander el-Amrani on his website The Arabist reported:

The clashes that broke out a few hours ago at Maspero, the large Downtown Cairo building near Tahrir Square that houses the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (basically, state TV and radio), are a deeply worrisome turn in Egypt’s fledging transition.

Worrisome because they started off at a protest of Christians (joined by some Muslims) over restrictions on church-building and have taken on a more sectarian overtone than anything we’ve seen so far.

Worrisome because state television has deployed propaganda, unverifiable allegations, talk of “foreign agendas” and “outside hands,” and extremely partial reporting.

It has repeatedly used sectarian language, with presenters referring to protestors as “the Copts” and using sentences such as “The Copts have killed two soldiers.” TV presenters were urging Egyptians to “protect the army from the Copts.”

Worrisome because many appear to have responded to that call, and tonight on one of Cairo’s main thoroughfares you could see young men marching to that chant of “There is no God but God”, or a woman being attacked simply because she was wearing a cross, or simply because sectarianism has reared its ugly head again.

“The military and police, together with Central Security personnel brutally forced the eviction of the protesters. A priest, Father Mattias Nasr, was pushed to the ground and beaten. Mobile phones and cameras were confiscated from anyone trying to take photos of the assault,” reported the Assyrian International News Agency, a Coptic advocacy group.

The protests had begun peacefully with thousands of Copts protesting the September 30 torching by Muslims of St. George’s Church in Elmarinab — and the lack of police or military protection given the church or its members.

“They marched through the streets of Cairo, passing by the High Court and ending outside the state TV building in Maspero, where they intended to stage an open-ended sit-in, as announced by the Maspero Coptic Youth Union and Copts without Barriers, which organized the rally,” reported Mary Abdelmassih for the Assyrian agency:

Video footage taken from the balcony of a nearby building surfaced later on youtube, it showed the military and police beating 28-year-old Copt Raef Anwar Fahim, who had the misfortune to stumble while fleeing and was left behind by his colleagues who were being chased by the police in the surrounding streets.

“I was the last one behind, a policeman hit me with a baton on the shoulder and I fell,” he said. “They were firing live ammunition. In a manner of seconds over 15 policemen attacked me.”

The clip showed 15-20 officers and policemen beating, dragging, kicking and swearing at Raef. They were shouting anti-Christian slogans and curses at him, such as “You infidel, son of a bitch.”

“I could feel their anger. They beat me like I was an enemy, as if I was an Israeli soldier,” Raef told The Way Christian TV.

Father Filopateer Gamil, one of the organizers of the rally, said “having lost consciousness because of the beating, the police thought Raef was dead, so they left him in the street.” He was later found and transported by some Coptic youths to the Coptic Hospital.

He had thirty stitches in his head, a broken arm and lacerations caused from being dragged along the streets.

“The video is a clear depiction of the brutality and religious intolerance, not to say deep hatred by the forces against a peaceful unarmed Christian demonstrator,” commented activist and writer Nabil Abdelfattah.

“The sectarian protest appeared to catch fire because it was aimed squarely at the military council that has ruled Egypt since the revolution, at a moment when the military’s latest delay in turning over power has led to a spike in public distrust of its authority,” reported David D. Kirkpatrick for the New York Times:

When the clashes broke out, some Muslims ran into the streets to help defend the Christians against the police, while others said they had come out to help the army quell the protests in the name of stability, turning what started as a march about a church into a chaotic battle over military rule and Egypt’s future.

Nada el-Shazly, 27, who was wearing a surgical mask to deflect the tear gas, said she came out because she heard state television urge “honest Egyptians” to turn out to protect the soldiers from Christian protesters, even though she knew some of her fellow Muslims had marched with the Christians to protest the military’s continued hold on power.

“Muslims get what is happening,” she said. The military, she said, was “trying to start a civil war.”

Christians form nearly 10 percent of Egypt’s population. Following the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak in February, concerns have been growing among Christians over the mounting political influence of Islamist groups, some of which view Copts as infidels and deny them the right to assume top government posts.

In Lebanon, the Iranian-financed Hezbollah voiced “its great pain and sorrow over the developments,” saying it was proof of an American agenda bent on “completely fragmenting the region along religious and racial lines.”

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