Cairo (CNN) — The number of dead in clashes between the army and pro-Coptic Christian protesters in Egypt over the weekend rose to at least 25, with at least 272 wounded, a Health Ministry official told CNN Monday.
Reports indicated the death toll could be as high as 29 in violence that an army spokesman speculated may have been guided by a “hidden hand” associated with neither side.
Many of the casualties had been crushed by speeding military vehicles, said Dr. Adel al-Dawi of the ministry.
The violence — the deadliest in Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak was toppled by a popular revolution in February — has returned the country to the tense period before the uprising, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said Monday.
“Instead of going forward, we found ourselves scrambling for security,” Sharaf said Monday on state television, noting that the incident had produced “martyrs, both civilian and from the military.”
Hundreds of Coptic Christians rallied Monday outside a hospital, chanting “The army has its tanks but we have our prayers.”
Some Muslims attended the rally in an expression of solidarity with Christians.
Egyptian security sources said stones were thrown at the rally, but a CNN reporter saw no evidence of that.
Sunday’s attack was an escalation of months of rising sectarian tension between Muslims and the Coptic Christian minority. The September 30 burning of a Coptic church in southern Egypt heightened emotions. The Copts protested Sunday to demand that the military provide equal protection for Coptic places of worship.
How the violence broke out was not clear. Some protesters said stones were thrown by people in civilian garb who were carrying sticks and machetes. The army said protesters fired on the army.
The protesters — many of them Copts or supportive of their cause — said they had been marching peacefully toward the Egyptian state television building when the violence erupted.
“Suddenly, we were attacked by thugs carrying swords and clubs,” one protester, Magdi Hanna, told CNN on Sunday.
Mohammed Abdel Jabaar, spokesman for the Egyptian Revolution Coalition — which says it was part of the movement that led to Mubarak’s ouster — blamed “interference from outside” for spurring the violent chain of events.
The January 25 youth revolution coalition, which has been involved in various anti-government protests, including Sunday’s demonstration, denied that any participants shot at the Egyptian forces.
Samir Bolos, one of the demonstrators, added Sunday that “some unknown people may have fired at the army, but not us.”
Witnesses said the army fired on the protesters near the state television headquarters. Meanwhile, military trucks could be seen burning on the street.
Hundreds of demonstrators also went to Tahrir Square, the hub of the revolutionary movement earlier this year, according to Bolos. He said military police armed with sticks stormed the square, while protesters fought back with rocks.
Sherif Doss, the head of Egypt’s association of Coptics and a spokesman for the Coptic Church, said 17 civilians died and 40 were wounded. He said that Pope Shenuda III denounced the violence, which the pope blamed on outsiders. “Strangers infiltrated the demonstration and committed the crimes for which the Copts have been blamed,” the church said in a statement.
Doss added, “We demand that the army checks the bullets used on the killed soldiers, they are probably military bullets. We do not have weapons.”
According to Alla Mahmoud, an Interior Ministry spokesman, some protesters began “firing live ammunition at the army.”
“This is the first time protesters fired at the army,” added Lt. Col. Amr Imam, a military spokesman. “There must be a hidden hand behind this. Egyptians don’t do that.”
Doss added: “We demand that the army checks the bullets used on the killed soldiers, they are probably military bullets. We do not have weapons.”
Twelve army troops were killed and more than 50 were wounded, according to Imam.
Despite the Health Ministry toll of 25 on Sunday, figures from the two sides indicated as many as 29 may have died.
Late Monday, a crowd of Muslim demonstrators gathered in Cairo chanting “Muslimiya! Muslimiya!” in an expression of unhappiness with the Copts.
The government has imposed a 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. curfew, a step it has taken before. In May, during another outbreak of sectarian violence, a National Justice Committee was formed to mitigate sectarian strife. Several members of the committee have resigned in protest, saying they government has done too little to address the mounting problems of sectarian tensions.
Though individual Muslim women outside a hospital wiped tears from the cheeks of Coptic women whose relatives died Sunday, it was not clear whether — at a state level — the military-run government has the will to address the problem or the wherewithal to run a country of nearly 90 million people.
Since Mubarak’s ouster in February, the country has become more unstable. The economy has ground to a halt, few tourists visit and the stock market has dropped.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.S. President Barack Obama, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed concern about Sunday’s violence.
“Now is a time for restraint on all sides so that Egyptians can move forward together to forge a strong and united Egypt,” the White House press secretary said in a statement. “As the Egyptian people shape their future, the United States continues to believe that the rights of minorities — including Copts — must be respected, and that all people have the universal rights of peaceful protest and religious freedom.”
The statement noted that Sharaf has called for an investigation. “These tragic events should not stand in the way of timely elections and a continued transition to democracy that is peaceful, just and inclusive,” it said.
Ashton said Monday that she was “extremely concerned by the large number of deaths and injuries,” while Hague condemned the loss of life.
Coptic Christians, an ancient sect, make up about 9% of Egypt’s population, according to the U.S. State Department.
They have suffered serious violence in recent months.
A Coptic church in the city of Alexandria was bombed on New Year’s Day, killing 23 people — the deadliest attack on Christians in Egypt in recent times.
Clashes involving Coptic Christians in May left at least 12 dead.
But there has also been mutual support between the minority Christians and majority Muslims in Egypt, with reports of Christians protecting anti-Mubarak Muslim demonstrators when they stopped for daily prayers during the uprising.
Egypt’s National Justice Committee held an emergency meeting Monday in the prime minister’s building involving representatives from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the al-Azhar mosque and the Coptic church to discuss the developments, said Mohamed Hegazy, a spokesman for the prime minister.
State TV reported Sunday night that Ahmed al-Tayyeb, a prominent Egyptian Muslim leader and grand imam of Al-Azhar mosque, has been contacting Coptic church leaders in an attempt to contain the crisis.
Egypt’s Coptic Christians base their theology on the teachings of the Apostle Mark, who introduced Christianity to Egypt, according to St. Takla Church in Alexandria, the capital of Coptic Christianity.
The religion split with other Christians in the 5th century over the definition of the divinity of Jesus Christ.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent bipartisan federal agency, added Egypt this year to a list of countries named as the worst violators of religious freedom