By Samer al-Atrush, AFP
CAIRO (AFP) - Egypt's caretaker government said on Wednesday it will prepare a law within a month to ease restrictions on building churches while banning protests in front of places of worship, after attacks on Cairo churches.
Formed after 15 people died when a Muslim mob attacked two Cairo churches on Saturday, the cabinet's justice committee said in a statement that it would "decisively stand against incitement to hatred and sectarianism."
The committee was tasked with "studying the project of unifying laws for the construction of places of worship, to be completed within 30 days."
It also decided to "ban demonstrations and gatherings outside places of worship," said the statement posted on the cabinet's website.
Under a law dating back to Ottoman times, Christians are required to seek the ruler's permission before building churches. They also have to obtain permission to renovate or repair churches.
The decision is usually delegated to governors, who often consulted security services on the possible reaction of Muslim residents to having a church in their midst.
Building churches has sometimes led to sectarian clashes with Muslims. But Saturday's violence began after Muslims surrounded a church in the poor district of Imbaba, claiming a Muslim convert was being held inside.
The statement also said the government would enforce a ban on using religious slogans in elections.
The country is set to vote in September in its first parliamentary election since the overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak in February.
Islamist groups such the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood movement, which has established a new party, say they are forming an alliance to contest the election.
The increasing assertiveness of Salafist fundamentalists in particular has been blamed for stoking religious tensions leading to Saturday's attacks.
The country's human rights council said in a report on Wednesday that men dressed as Salafists were present in the mob and partly blamed "the intensification of extremist religious interpretations that propose rearranging Egyptian society to exclude Christians" for the attacks.
The National Council for Human Rights also said the attacks were possible due to the security vacuum in the country since anti-Mubarak protesters torched police stations on January 28, leading Mubarak to call in the military.
The military, which now rules the country, has pledged to come down hard on sectarian violence, but it is not experienced in crowd control.
"The army is not trained to control the street. The police is necessary," council member Hafez Abu Saada said.
The report also blamed decades of sectarian unease between Muslims and Copts, who make up about ten percent of the country's population of 80 million.
They complain of state-sanctioned discrimination, such as the law on building churches, and have been the targets of fairly regular attacks.
At least a dozen people were killed in March when Muslims clashed with Christians in another Cairo district, after the Copts staged a protest against the torching of a church a few days earlier.
In January, a suicide bomber killed more than 20 people outside a church in the coastal city of Alexandria.