Muslims in Egypt this weekend attacked local Christians and set fire to their shops and homes after the Christian community was accused of attempting to build a church.

The riots broke out Friday in the village of Behma, about 50 miles south of Cairo, reportedly after a Muslim sermon at a nearby village mosque accused the town’s Coptic Christian population of planning to construct a church without a permit. The Christians said the sermon was meant to stir violence.

The Egyptian government heavily restricts the construction or enlargement of churches, requiring permits for any Christian building.

The riots this weekend reportedly saw Muslim gangs of more than 500 clash with about 200 Christians. At least 27 Christian-owned houses and shops were damaged by fire, including 10 homes that were completely gutted. Muslims reportedly threw Molotov cocktails at some Christian homes. Sixty-nine Christians were injured, some gravely.

A spokesman for Egypt’s interior ministry confirmed around 500 Muslims had gathered in Behma after Friday prayers and that the entrances to three Christian homes had been set on fire.

According to a Muslim reporter who was on the scene for a top Egyptian daily, Egyptian police forces did not immediately step in to stop the violence.

“There was an atmosphere of terror for the Christians of Behma. The police could have intervened early, but they seemed to let the clashes go for some hours before stepping in,” said the reporter, who spoke to WND on condition his name be withheld. He said he was banned from filing a report for his newspaper.

Security forces ultimately reportedly arrested 59 Muslims, who were charged with arson and with spreading sectarian strife.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the Behma Christian were enlarging or building a church. Christians in the town currently pray from a house that doubles as a worship center.

The Coptic Church, a major Christian community in Egypt, reportedly dates back to the origins of Christianity. Christians were the majority in Egypt until several centuries after the Arab conquest of the seventh century.

Christians now comprise about 10 percent of Egypt’s 75 million population, but Christians are effectively restricted from senior government, military or educational positions, and any worship services require the permission of the government.

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