ALEXANDRIA, Egypt, Apr 15 (Reuters) Police fired tear gas today to stop clashes between Christians and Muslims which broke out during the funeral of an elderly Copt killed in Alexandria a day earlier, witnesses said.
Hundreds of Christians turned out for the funeral of the 67-year-old Coptic man, who died yesterday after he was stabbed by a Muslim in an attack at two churches. Five other people were knifed and wounded in the attack.
Tensions between Egypt's Christians and Muslims occasionally boil over into violence, notably in 1999 when 22 people where killed in sectarian strife in the southern village of Kosheh.
Three Muslims and two Christians were wounded in Saturday's scuffles during the funeral, ambulance workers said. Rocks and sticks were used in the clashes.
An Interior Ministry source said the 25-year-old man who carried out Friday's attack said he was taking revenge for insults to the Prophet Mohammed -- a reference to cartoons published mainly in European newspapers lampooning the Prophet.
The authorities say the attacker is mentally ill.
But Christian demonstrators in Alexandria said the authorities were trying to make excuses for what some Copts saw as increasing attacks by Islamists on Copts.
''We want justice. Christ is the winner,'' they chanted as they marched through the city on Egypt's northern coast.
''Why can't we live in peace?'' read a banner held by mourners at the funeral. ''No to oppression,'' read another.
Three people died in Alexandria in clashes with the police in October during protests by Muslims over a church play which they said was offensive to Islam.
Coptic Christians comprise between five and 10 percent of Egypt's 73 million people, most of whom are Sunni Muslim.
President Hosni Mubarak said Egypt would confront any attempts to harm national unity.
''Egypt is considered a model of national unity and religious tolerance,'' Mubarak said in comments published in state press.
''The occurrence of an individual incident or problem cannot disturb the serenity and strength of this relationship between the two elements of the nation,'' he said.
REUTERS CH BST2207