, CAIRO, Jan 7 – Clashes erupted on Thursday as thousands of Coptic Christians gathered in a southern Egyptian town to bury six of their number gunned down on Coptic Christmas Eve by men believed to be Muslims, security officials said.
Officials and the local bishop said three men in a car had raked pedestrians with gunfire along a street containing two churches and a shopping precinct.
Bishop Kirolos said the victims were people who had just come out of main church after attending a Christmas Eve service, and the proximity of the shopping precinct might have drawn some of them to it.
Six Copts and a Muslim policeman were killed, while at least nine more Copts were wounded, two of them seriously, a security official said.
The wounded were evacuated to hospital in the nearby governorate of Sohag.
An estimated 5,000 Copts attended the funeral in Nagaa Hammadi, 40 miles (65 kilometres) from the popular tourist city of Luxor.
Police said Copts stoned the hospital where the bodies of the six dead were kept and police cars before the service.
Police responded with tear gas.
Protesters shouted "No to repression" and "O blessed Cross we will defend you with our soul and our blood," witnesses said.
The clashes had subsided by midday (1000 GMT), and no violence was reported at the funeral.
An initial investigation reported that the gunmen opened fire as they sped along the street, killing and wounding people over a distance of 400 metres (yards).
The car then turned down a side street to leave the town and the gunmen fired at a convent after exiting the street, which also housed the bishop\’s offices, and fled to a rural area near the town in Qena province, 700 kilometres (435 miles south of Cairo).
Copts celebrate Christmas on January 7 along with many other Orthodox communities around the world.
Bishop Kirilos told AFP on Thursday that he saw gunmen peppering worshippers with automatic gunfire outside the archbishopric after the mass was over at 11:00 pm (2100 GMT) the previous night.
"We concluded the mass at 11:00 pm and I was heading to the bishopric when I saw a man, in a car, open fire with an automatic rifle at Copts who were walking past the building," Kirolos said in a telephone interview.
"The gunman then continued to fire on Copts in the streets of the town," he said.
The bishop said the "author of this crime has a police record and should have been arrested" for past crimes but is under the protection of prominent figures close to the ruling National Democratic Party.
Witnesses, cited by local officials, earlier said the main gunman is a Muslim wanted by police and linked to the abduction of a 12-year-old Muslim girl in November who was allegedly raped by a Coptic youth.
"The first elements of the investigation, based on testimony of people on the ground, indicate that the main shooter is a town resident identified as Mohammed Ahmed Hussein, who is wanted by the police," one official said.
Kirolos also told AFP that some of his parishioners had been receiving for the past week hate calls on their cell phones and threats alleging that Muslims "will avenge the rape of the girl during the Christmas celebrations."
Copts who represent roughly 10 percent of Egypt\’s 80-million-strong population are the largest Christian community in the Middle East, but they frequently complain of discrimination, harassment and sectarian attacks.
In November, hundreds of Muslim protesters torched Christian-owned shops in the town of Farshut, near Nagaa Hammadi, and attacked a police station where they believed the suspected rapist was being held.
It was latest in a string of sectarian tensions between Muslims and Egypt\’s Copts — the Middle East\’s largest Christian community.
On Wednesday, the head of the Coptic minority, Pope Shenuda III, led a Christmas midnight mass at the Abbassiya church in Cairo which was attended by thousands of worshippers, including President Hosni Mubarak\’s son and heir apparent Gamal Mubarak.