Egypt's Coptic Christians have long felt like second-class citizens in their own country.

Now many fear that the power vacuum left after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak is giving Muslim extremists free rein to torch churches and attack Coptic homes in the worst violence against the community in decades.

An assault Sunday night on Christians protesting over a church attack set off riots that drew in Muslims, Christians and the police. Among the 26 people left killed in the melee, most were Copts. For Coptic scholar Wassem el-Sissi, it was evidence that the Christian community in Egypt is vulnerable as never before.

"In the absence of law, you can understand how demolishing a church goes unpunished," he said. "I have not heard of anyone who got arrested or prosecuted."

Once a majority in Egypt, Copts now make up about 10 percent of the country's 85 million people. They are the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Their history dates back 19 centuries and the language used in their liturgy can be traced to the speech of Egypt's pharaohs. Proud of their history and faith, many Copts are identifiable by tattoos of crosses or Jesus Christ on their right wrists, and Coptic women do not wear the veil as the vast majority of Muslim women in Egypt do.

Under Mubarak, the problems of Copts festered even if they faced less violence than they do now. Their demands for a law to regulate construction of churches went unanswered and attacks on churches went unpunished.

Copts shared in the euphoria of the 18-day revolution that ousted Mubarak and like so many other Egyptians their hopes for change were high. Mainly, they wanted to be on equal footing with Muslims.

At Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the revolution against Mubarak, there were glimpses of a fleeting utopia where coexistence and mutual respect between Muslims and Christians was the rule. The iconic image of Christians forming a human shield around Muslim worshippers during Friday prayers to protect them from thugs and pro-Mubarak loyalists spoke volumes to the dream.

But shortly after Mubarak's ouster, a series of assaults on Christians brought home a stark reality: The fading of authoritarian rule empowered Islamist fundamentalists, known here as Salafis, who have special resentment for Christians.

While the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood has long been Egypt's best organized opposition movement, the Salafis are a new player in politics. They are ultraconservatives, close to Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and more radical than the Brotherhood. They seek to emulate the austerity of Islam's early days and oppose a wide range of practices they view as "un-Islamic" _ rejecting the treatment of non-Muslims as citizens with equal rights as well as all forms of Western cultural influence.

The Salafis persistently accuse the Copts of trying to spread Christianity in a Muslim nation, echoing Wahhabism's deep distrust and hostility of other religions.

Mubarak's regime tolerated the Salafis and they expanded in numbers and power over the years. However, after Mubarak's overthrow, they enjoyed more freedom than ever before to go after their No. 1 target _ Christians.

Now rarely a month passes without a sectarian incident _ a Muslim-Christian love affair or battles over constructing a church.

On Feb. 23, less than two weeks after Mubarak's ouster, a priest was found dead with several stab wounds and witnesses say masked men shouting Allahu-Akbar (God is Great) were seen leaving his apartment. The incident triggered protests in the southern city of Assiut where Christians scuffled with Muslims.

Not long after in March, a Muslim-Christian love affair led a Muslim mob to torch a church in Soul village to the south of Cairo and set it on fire. When Christians held a protest denouncing the attack on the church, they were attacked by Muslim mob wielding guns, knives and clubs. When it was done, 13 were dead and 140 injured.

The next month, thousands of protesters, most of them Islamic hard-liners and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, protested in front of the governor's office in the southern city of Qena to denounce the appointment a day earlier of a new Coptic Christian governor. In the face of the protests, the government replaced the Coptic governor.

Then in May, Islamic ultraconservatives burned a church in the working-class district of Imbaba in Cairo and clashed with Christians leaving 12 dead.

Those riots were triggered by a Christian woman who had an affair with a Muslim man. And when she disappeared, the man spread rumors that Christian clergy had snatched her and were holding her prisoner in a local church because she converted to Islam.

Then a few months passed with no attacks, until Sunday night, now known as the "bloody Sunday."

The Christians were protesting in Cairo over the events of Sept. 30 when a Muslim mob that set fire on a church in southern village of Marynab in Aswan province because they believed the Christians were illegally constructing a new church. Church officials had documents showing they had permission to build a new church to replace a previous, run-down one at the same site.

Under Mubarak-era rules, the building of a church or repairs for an existing one required permission from local authorities and the state security agency but since permission was rarely given, Christians at times resorted to building churches in secret, often in parish guesthouses.

Even before the attack, Muslim protests prompted priests to turn to security officials, who arranged a meeting with local elders and Salafis. In the face of their demands, the priests agreed to take down a cross and bells on the church, according to church officials. Still, after the Christians erected a dome, the mob attacked, setting the church and nearby homes and shops on fire.

Aswan's governor, Gen. Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyed, escalated the tensions by telling the media that the church was being built on the site of a guesthouse, suggesting it was illegal.

In response, hundreds of Christians marched in front of the governor's office last week, demanding those behind the attack be prosecuted and families who lost homes be compensated. Christians also protested in Cairo, cutting off a main avenue in the heart of the capital, demanding the governor's ouster, until soldiers dispersed them by force.

Days after the Aswan attack, Muslim villagers in the southern province of Sohag tried to storm Saint Girgis church, shouting "No to church construction," as Christians on rooftops rained stones down on them. The assault was prompted by construction of a church in a guesthouse.

On Monday, the Coptic church declared three days of morning for those killed the night before and blasted authorities for allowing repeated attacks on Christians with impunity. The statement lamented "problems that occur repeatedly and go unpunished."

Outside the Coptic Hospital in Cairo, where bodies of 17 slain protesters were brought, a Coptic woman named Iman Sanada with a small cross tattooed on her wrist, lamented the deaths and shrieked: "It's my right to live as a citizen and not a second-class citizen."

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Associated Press reporter Aya Batrawy contributed to this report from Cairo.