January 6, 2015 / 6:53 AM / in 3 years

Two Egyptian police shot dead outside Coptic Church south of Cairo

MINYA, Egypt (Reuters) - Two Egyptian policemen were shot dead by masked men on Tuesday as they stood guard at a Coptic Christian church in a city south of Cairo, witnesses and a local security source said.

Egypt’s Coptic Christmas falls on Wednesday and security is typically tightened at churches ahead of the holiday after a string of attacks on Christian targets over the past years.

Interior Ministry spokesman Hany Abdel Latif was quoted by state newspaper Al-Ahram as saying Tuesday’s attack in Minya was not sectarian. “(It) has nothing to do with any of the holidays of our Coptic brothers, it is instead aimed at the security forces, to try to undermine their resolve.”

The country’s Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population of 85 million, have largely coexisted peacefully with majority Sunni Muslims for centuries.

But following the army’s ousting of President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013, a number of churches and Christian properties were burned and destroyed in the impoverished south that is home to many Christians.

The Brotherhood said at the time it had nothing to do with attacks on Christians and accused the army of cynically using the minority population to justify a fierce security crackdown.

The most populous Arab nation faces a jihadist insurgency that has killed hundreds of soldiers and police since Mursi’s overthrow. A group of Sinai-based militants has pledged allegiance to Islamic State, the al Qaeda offshoot that controls parts of Iraq and Syria.

Most of the attacks on security forces have been in the Sinai peninsula, which borders Israel and the Gaza Strip. But some attacks have occurred in cities, including the capital.

On Tuesday afternoon, an Egyptian police officer was killed while dismantling a homemade bomb near a police station in the Giza governorate, outside Cairo, security sources said.

Four years of political turmoil since the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak has battered Egypt’s economy and frightened off tourists and investors.

Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Alison Williams

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