Page last updated at 01:06 GMT, Sunday, 14 February 2010

Egyptian Coptic murder trial opens and is adjourned

Mohammed al-Kammuni (centre) stands in the dock at the court in Qena (13 February 2010)
Mohammed al-Kammuni (centre) said the police knew he was innocent

A court in Egypt has adjourned until next month the trial of three Muslim men charged with shooting dead six Coptic Christians and a policeman.

Gunmen opened fire on Copts as they came out of a Coptic Christmas Eve mass at a church in the town of Naga Hamady.

The accused pleaded not guilty at the opening of their trial, despite having initially confessed to the shooting.

The authorities said the attack was in revenge for the rape of a 12-year-old Muslim girl, allegedly by a Copt.

Following the reported rape in November there were five days of riots in the town, with Christian properties set on fire and damaged.

'Atmosphere of intolerance'

There was high security in place for the opening of the trial at the emergency security court in the southern Egyptian city of Qena.

Egyptians take part in a candlelight vigil at the Abbasiya Cathedral in Cairo on 20 January 2010 to protest against the killings in Naga Hammady
Copts said sectarian tensions had been building before the attack

The three defendants - Mohammed al-Kammuni, Qurshi Abul Haggag and Hendawi Sayyed - all pleaded not guilty to the charges of premeditated murder, putting lives of citizens at risk, and damaging property.

"Police know that I am innocent and who the real perpetrators are," a security official quoted Mr Kammuni as saying, according to the Reuters news agency.

After the pleas were entered, the judge adjourned the trial until 20 March.

The BBC's Yolande Knell in Cairo says that while Egyptian officials have denied a sectarian element to the attack - insisting it was a criminal act - it has caused outrage among the country's Coptic community, who account for about 10% of the 80 million population.

They claim there should have been better police protection following a history of tensions in Naga Hamady. The bishop who presided over the mass said there had been threats in the days leading up to it.

There has also been international condemnation. The US said the killings showed "an atmosphere of intolerance in Egypt".

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