An Egyptian court on Sunday convicted and sentenced to death a Muslim man for killing six Christians and a Muslim guard last year -- the latest in a series of moves by authorities seeking to calm religious tensions following a massive suicide bombing outside a church two weeks ago.
The violence has raised fears of a deepening and potentially explosive Muslim-Christian divide in this key U.S. ally, which is already beset by a widening income gap and frustration over government corruption and a lack of democratic reform.
Sunday's hearing was held in the southern Egyptian city of Qena, where the trial began 11 months ago, amid tight security, with hundreds of riot police sealing off roads leading to the courthouse.
Chief defendant 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. He was convicted of first-degree murder and terror-related charges.
The State Security Court, whose rulings cannot be appealed, will announce next month verdicts for the other two defendants in the case, judicial officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share the information with the media.
The death sentence comes as Egypt's government is scrambling to contain Christian anger after a Jan. 1 suicide bombing at a church in the port city of Alexandria that killed 21 worshippers.
The two attacks took place almost exactly a year apart and both struck worshippers leaving Mass in the days leading up to Orthodox Christmas, which Egypt's Coptic Christian minority celebrate on Jan. 7.
Exacerbating Christian anger, an off-duty policeman boarded a train in southern Egypt last week and opened fire, killing a 71-year-old Christian man and wounding five others, including the man's wife. The shooting and the suicide bombing have sparked several Christian protests, some violent.