Arrests after attacks on Christian property in Egypt

 Coptic church appears behind a mosque in Cairo

Police arrested 20 people when hundreds of Egyptian Muslims attacked Coptic Christian property after a woman who converted to Islam went missing, a security official said on Saturday.

At least five people were also slightly hurt when police used tear gas to disperse protesters in the village of Al-Nazla, in the province of Fayyum 100 kilometres (62 miles) south of Cairo on Friday, the official said.

The woman later returned home with her 10-month-old baby after a three-day visit to relatives in the capital, security officials said.

Muslim villagers went on the rampage after word that the woman had gone missing from her home and was said to have abducted by her Christian family.

"Al-Nazla residents threw stones at houses and shops owned by Copts ... because the villagers believed that the woman had been kidnapped by Christian members of her family," the official said on condition of anonymity.

"Some 50 Coptic homes and businesses, including pharmacies, grocers and electrical appliance shops were sacked," he said.

Coptic resident Sayyed Ghattas said "I was surprised at this attack by people with whom we were on good neighbourly terms and who, all of a sudden, turned on us. This matter had nothing to do with us."

Earlier this month the Coptic Ecclesiastical Council issued an unusually strongly worded statement urging President Hosni Mubarak to guarantee the safety of Christians in Egypt.

The statement referred to a violent attack on a monastery in May in which four Copts were injured, and called on Mubarak to prevent "more armed attacks on monks" and "insults to the cross."

That attack, in the southern town of Mallawi, sparked fears of sectarian strife in an increasingly religious, Sunni Muslim-dominated society in which tensions with Christians are already running high.

Egypt's Copts -- the largest Christian community in the Middle East -- account for an estimated six to 10 percent of the country's 76 million inhabitants and complain of systematic discrimination and harassment.

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