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Sectarian unrest flares anew in southern Egypt

LUXOR, Egypt — Police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of Muslim protesters trying to storm a Coptic Christian church in southern Egypt on Friday, after a word spread that a Christian man sexually assaulted a 6-year-old girl.

Witnesses in Marashda village in the province of Qena said several shops and cars owned by Coptic Christians were torched overnight Thursday after Muslim villagers accused a merchant in his 60s of molesting the girl.

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Violence flared again after Friday prayers, with witnesses saying protesters surrounded the village’s central Abu Fam church, hurling stones and trying to storm it. Some climbed the church walls and destroyed a cross atop it. Police fired tear gas to scatter the crowd.

General Salah Mazid, the Qena security director, was quoted in state media as saying that police are investigating the accusations against the merchant, who turned himself in at a police station.

A resident who lives next to the church blamed extremist Islamists for spreading news of the accusations in order to enrage crowds and incite an attack on the church.

‘‘They are terrorizing us. They try to find a reason to attack us,’’ said the resident, asking not to be named for fear of retribution. ‘‘In no time, this village turned to a ball of fire.’’

‘‘We know those behind it,’’ he said, referring to the Group for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, an organization which he said over the past two months has been visiting cafes and ordering people not to smoke. They force Muslims to go to the mosque to pray, he added.

The villages of Qena are among the poorest in Egypt. They also have a significant Coptic Christian population.

Flare-ups of violence among Egypt’s Christians and Muslims have become more frequent in the two years since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising, an event that also left the country’s security weakened.

‘‘We want law enforcement, not mass punishment of all Christians for an individual mistake,’’ said Coptic activist Hana Hasseb. ‘‘What is the guilt of all of those whose stores were set ablaze?’’

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