CAIRO (Reuters) -- Egypt must face up to increasing sectarian violence and prosecute offenders in order to stave off a further rise in such attacks, a rights group said on Sunday.
"The state does not have a plan to quash sectarian tension and it does not even acknowledge its existence," Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said at a news conference to launch the study.
The group's study found the number of cases of sectarian violence rose between 2008 and 2009 in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation where Christians make up some 10 percent of the 78 million population.
It identified 53 examples of clashes, with 24 in 2008 and 29 last year, saying many cases were not being investigated sufficiently or had been ignored.
In one high-profile case, six Coptic Christians were killed in a drive-by shooting in Nagaa Hamady, south of Cairo, on Coptic Christmas eve on Jan. 7 by Muslims who blamed the Christian community in the rape of a Muslim girl.[ID:nLDE60C0FZ]
Several Muslims accused of the shooting are facing trial.
But activists say the government tends to act only in the biggest cases and in some instances works to block a victim from pursuing legal action against the suspected attackers.
"Authorities pressure the victims to renounce their rights the very moment they step into the police station," Bahgat said.
He said the state, as well as religious leaders on both sides who wanted to emphasise religious harmony, were sweeping incidents under the carpet rather than dealing with them openly.
The government routinely plays down the significance of any clashes as isolated incidents.
The study found Minya, a governorate south of Cairo, had the highest percentage of clashes, with one case every 35 days in 17 villages, with rows often spilling over from village to the next. No one had been referred to trial in any of those cases.
"We fear the smallest clashes will explode into bigger sectarian conflicts," Bahgat said.
"Our nightmare will be when it triggers violence, quickly spilling over into entire governorates and beyond."
Clashes in Egypt have started over property rows or relationships between a couple from different religions.
But the study said it was more common for a minor non-religious dispute to escalate into retribution against a whole community. It cited examples of rows over livestock ownership or schoolyard fights turning into broader clashes.
The rights group noted some improvements with the Ministry of Religious Endowments beginning to send Muslim preachers to villages in southern Egypt to promote religious tolerance. But it said more work needed to be done.
"When you have a problem you fail to address for 40 years, it will continue to deteriorate," Bahgat said.
By Dina Zayed
Editing by Michael Roddy.