CAIRO - Egypt's military rulers warned on Sunday of strong measures against anyone inciting sectarian strife, in a bid to ease tensions between Muslims and Christians.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took power after president Hosni Mubarak's ouster in February, said it was "exerting all efforts to end sectarian disagreements on the Egyptian street to protect this nation." "The council warns that it will not hesitate to take all measures, whatever they may be, to protect the unity of the Egyptian social fabric and the stability of Egypt," it said on its Facebook page. The statement came after a series of Muslim-Christian clashes and amid the growing public presence of Salafis - a puritanical Islamist sect - since the fall of Mubarak after a wave of mass protests. On Friday, around 2,000 Salafis protested outside the Coptic Church's headquarters in Cairo to demand the release of two women they allege are being held after converting to Islam. The church denies the women converted to Islam. The Salafis have held regular protests over the case in the past year, but they have usually been smaller in number. Their cause was picked up by an al-Qaeda-linked group in Iraq that massacred dozens of Christians in a Baghdad church in November 2010 and vowed more attacks until the two women are freed. Two months later, a suicide bomber killed more than 20 Copts after a New Year's Eve mass in Egypt's coastal city of Alexandria. In the central province of Minya, security was boosted last month after a Christian-Muslim family dispute sparked deadly clashes, prompting Muslim residents to burn homes and shops owned by Coptic Christians. The Minya incident came as thousands in the neighbouring province of Qena protested against the appointment of a Christian governor linked to the ousted Mubarak regime. The clashes and protests raised fears of widespread sectarian unrest, with the Coptic minority -- which accounts for an estimated 10 per cent of Egypt's 80-million population -- long complaining of discrimination.