The southern Egyptian town of Naga Hammadi will never be the same again. The past week has seen the town, 60km north of Luxor, turn into a battleground of sectarian violence that has shocked the nation when seven young Christian deacons were murdered in a drive-by shooting on the Coptic Christmas eve. Also killed was a Muslim church guard.

Three Muslim men have been arrested over the murders, which it is reported were in retaliation for the alleged rape of a 12-year-old Muslim girl by a Christian man, in November.

Eyewitness reports state that 10 Christian deacons and the Muslim man were gunned down outside Mar Yohana church on the eve of the Coptic Christmas, on 6 January, as they left the ceremony. Six died at the scene, the seventh later in hospital.

Violence has spread to other southern Egyptian cities which have seen houses and businesses being torched by rioting crowds, which police have counteracted with tear gas and rubber bullets fired into the crowds.

Commentators say there is more to this than meets the eye: the man  accused of the rape did not automatically receive the mandatory punishment, which, in Egypt, is death by hanging. Instead, his case was referred to a higher court, which opponents say is the government protecting its minority Christian population. It begs the question: is the government guilty of protection or could there be doubt the man is actually guilty?

Egypt has been home to Christians since the first century and approximately 10 percent of Egypt’s 83-million strong population is Coptic Christian.

NB: this page will be updated in the coming day.