CAIRO -- Clashes between Egyptian Muslims and Christians erupted early Saturday in a town near Cairo, leaving at least five people dead, security officials said.
Investigators said they are waiting for autopsy reports to confirm how the men -- four Christians and a Muslim -- were killed in the small town of Khosoos, some 12 miles north of the capital.
Police said the clashes started when young Muslims drew inflammatory symbols on an Islamic institute and a local mosque. Christian onlookers and Muslims nearby began quarreling and soon residents wielding guns began firing on one another.
Residents interviewed Associated Press had different accounts of what sparked the violence, and said police arrived hours after the fight ended. Some residents said violence was sparked by feuding families. Others said the fight began after a woman was verbally harassed in the street. The varying accounts could not be immediately reconciled.
The clashes also resulted in a fire near a church, which is now closed and guarded by armored police vehicles. Broken glass from smashed shop windows littered the street, where the hulks of several burned out cars stood.
"Police fired tear gas and we all left," said thirty-six-year-old Atef Atta, a Christian resident. "Christians are always victims and the government doesn't do anything," he added.
Egypt's Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the country's 85 million people, have long complained of discrimination by the state. They are the largest Christian community in the Middle East.
The political party of President Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood condemned the sectarian strife.
"Security authorities should take all measures to resolve the problem and religious figures should intervene to end the tension," Freedom and Justice Party Chairman Saad el-Katatni said in a statement emailed to reporters.
Church officials in the neighborhood where the fighting took place could not be immediately reached for comment.
Egyptian Christians fear that lack of security and political tension, along with hate speech by some ultraconservative Islamic clerics might give extremists a freer hand to attack churches and Coptic property, especially in the country's poorer areas.