LUXEMBOURG —(AFP) -European leaders expressed alarm on Monday at sectarian clashes that killed 24 people, mainly Coptic Christians, in Egypt overnight and urged post-revolution authorities to uphold religious freedom.
“I am very concerned, very alarmed about the clashes in Cairo”, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said as he arrived in Luxembourg for talks with his 26 European Union counterparts.
“It is very important that the Egyptian authorities reaffirm the freedom of worship,” he said after the clashes that broke out during a Coptic protest against a recent attack on a church in the southern city of Aswan.
As the government in Cairo prepared for crisis talks, Germany said it too was “very worried”.
“We can only call on the Egyptian government to get to the bottom of these incidents as soon as possible and bring those responsible to justice,” Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert told journalists.
“We encourage the Egyptian government to do everything in its power to foster an atmosphere of religious tolerance,” he added, calling for respect for the rights of the Coptic Christian minority.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in a separate statement called on all sides to exercise restraint and moderation, while Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini urged EU “condemnation of the very serious violence against Christians, the Egyptian Copts”, who he said were fleeing in “exodus”.
Noting “an escalation” in violence against the country’s Christians, Frattini said: “We hope the response of the Egyptian authorities will be more energetic than under (former president Hosni) Mubarak, which was insufficient.”
At least 40 people were arrested in central Cairo when a Copt demonstration degenerated into deadly clashes that also left more than 200 people wounded.
It was not immediately clear how many of those detained were Muslim or Christian.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the events would be discussed by the ministers meeting in Luxembourg.
“Freedom of expression and belief is absolutely fundamental to human rights,” she said.
Ashton urged Egypt to move towards elections “with a desire to see all people part of those elections and to protect the people, whoever they are, wherever they come from, whatever belief and faith they have.”
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero “deeply regrets” the clashes, his office said in a statement.
“Spain calls for overcoming the differences between communities so that the spirit of the ‘Arab spring’ may be translated very soon into a peaceful and democratic future together,” it said.
“The building of a democratic regime is the universal aspiration of all Egyptians, independent of their origin and religious belief. To that end, it is essential that the authorities pursue their efforts to guarantee Coptic citizens’ their safety and the exercise of their rights.”