CAIRO, EGYPT (Worthy News)-- Christians in Egypt were following political developments after the country's new military rulers pledged to criminalize sectarian violence and ease restrictions on building churches as inter-faith clashes killed a dozen people in recent days.
The announcement came after Saturday riots in the Egyptian capital Cairo -- triggered by allegations that Christians had abducted two women who converted to Islam -- left 12 people dead and reportedly around 238 wounded.
A church, a residential building and two shops were also wrecked by fire, according to eyewitnesses. The army announced it arrested 190 people following the clashes and added that they would be tried.
Witnesses said tensions erupted when Muslim protesters gathered outside of St. Mina Church Saturday, May 7, to demand the release of "converted" women who they claimed were being detained against their will.
Unable to push through the barricade, armed Islamists broke into Virgin Mary Church, a ten minute walk from St. Mina, and lit it on fire, Christians said. "Islamists killed one guy in the church by slitting his throat. Most of the people killed were inside, and then they torched the church," advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC) quoted an eyewitness as saying.
A week earlier, 2,000 Muslims protested outside of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo demanding the release of the same two women, Christians said.
Egyptians claimed the violence was sparked by Salafists, who adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam. Others blamed remnants of the former regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
Analysts say the sectarian clashes represent a challenge for Egypt's new military backed government, which is under pressure to improve security and revive the economy without using similar hard-line tactics as the previous regime.
Rights activists have accused the Egyptian military of neglecting to increase security at Coptic churches amid signs that radical Muslim groups are increasing their influence in the country.
"Last weekend, 50,000 Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood members held a joint rally in Giza, chanting slogans of unity and support for an Islamic state. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is the most organized and financed contender in Egypt’s September elections," said ICC.
"Many predict that Islamists will win the majority seat in parliament, including presidential candidate and nationalist Amr Moussa."
In an effort to ease tensions, the cabinet said it had set up a committee to draw up the new regulations including "a unified law for building of places of worship."
Current laws make it easier to build mosques than churches. Christians, who make up around 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million people, have long demanded equal rights.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended last month that Egypt be placed on the list of “Countries of Particular Concern," or CPCs.
However several human rights activists and Christian leaders have cautioned that this could increase tensions as "It sends a negative message that Egypt is worse off this year now that it is not being ruled by a dictator."
The USCIRF report covers the time period from April 1, 2010 to March 31, 2011. Egypt's revolution that erupted January 25 culminated in President Hosni Mubarak stepping down on February 11 of this year. (With reporting by Worthy News's Stefan J. Bos and reports from Cairo).