CAIRO — A court in southern Egypt on Sunday convicted and sentenced to death a Muslim man for his part in last year's Christmas drive-by shooting outside a church that left six Christians and a Muslim guard dead, judicial officials said.
The harsh verdict comes as the Egyptian government is scrabbling to contain Christian anger in the country following a deadly suicide blast at another church on New Year's Day that killed 21 worshippers and has left the community outraged.
Next month, the court will announce verdicts for the other two defendants in a case that had languished in the courts for the past year, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share the information with the media.
The January 2010 attack in the southern town of Nag Hamadi also took place outside a church as worshippers were leaving following the Coptic Christmas Eve Mass, and is believed to have been in retaliation for accusations of rape of a Muslim girl against a local Christian man.
Sunday's hearing was held in the southern Egyptian city of Qena, which is close to Nag Hamadi, amid tight security, with hundreds of riot policemen sealing off roads leading to the courthouse.
Mohammed Ahmed Hassanein, also known by his alias Hammam al-Kamouni, broke down on hearing the sentence read out by presiding judge Mohammed Fahmy Abdul-Maugoud. "I am a victim, I did not do it," screamed Hassanein, whose trial lasted 11 months. He was convicted of first degree murder and terror-related charges.
The severity of Sunday's sentence was likely to appease Egypt's Christians, who have been complaining that criminal cases involving Muslims attacking members of their community rarely come to justice swiftly.
They also charge that police often turn a blind eye to incidents of discrimination or violence against them. Last week an off-duty police officer walked onto a train in southern Egypt and shot six Christians, killing a 71-year-old man, further exacerbating tensions with the country's largest minority.
The government denies any discrimination against the Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's estimated 80 million people.
In a thinly veiled reference to the Christian complaints about the judicial system, President Hosni Mubarak last week told senior judges that "slow justice" breeds bitterness among Egyptians, urging them to speed up trials.