SOHAG, Egypt (AP) - A southern Egyptian court on Monday convicted four of 96 defendants on trial for deadly Muslim-Christian clashes a year ago that marked some of the worst religious violence in Egypt in decades.
However, none of four Muslims found guilty was convicted of the harshest charge - murder.
Twenty-one people, nearly all of them Christians, died in the violence that erupted Jan. 2, 2000, a few days after an argument between a Muslim customer and a Coptic Christian shopkeeper in el-Kusheh, 275 miles south of Cairo. The fighting spread to the neighboring village of Dar el-Salam.
Fifty-seven Muslims were put on trial, 38 of them for murder. The most serious charges against the Christian defendants were looting, arson and
attempted murder. The trial began in June.
In early December, presiding Judge Mohamed Affifi released 89 defendants who had spent up to 11 months in detention, asking the eldest from among the 57 Muslims and the 32 Christians in custody to shake hands. Instead, Fassad Mohammed and Fawzi Abdel-Shaheed hugged each other to cheers from the public gallery.
On Monday, security was tight, with plainclothes policemen on the rooftops of adjacent buildings and riot police in full gear at the courthouse gates.
Foreign journalists were barred from entering the court.
Mayez Amin Abdel-Rahim was convicted of accidental homicide and illegal possession of a weapon and sentenced him to 10 years in prison, the harshest penalty issued Monday. Mohammed Fawzi Shabib was sentenced to two years in prison for accidental homicide.
Two others were sentenced to a year in jail for damaging a car. Seven tried in absentia were among those acquitted.
The light sentences were believed to be an attempt to avoid flaring further sectarian violence.
In September, a separate court panel convicted 20 people of inciting violence and looting for rioting in Dar el-Salam, where five Christians were injured and 156 Christian-owned stores, homes and businesses burned or looted. Nineteen people were acquitted.
The judge also said during the el-Kusheh trial that authorities appeared to have had trouble identifying who was responsible for which acts. ``Too many people became involved. It was difficult to know who were the perpetrators and who were the victims,'' said Abul-Qassim el-Sherif, an attorney for seven defendants - five Christians and two Muslims - who all were acquitted.
However, Affifi accused three el-Kusheh priests of failing to break up the quarrel that sparked the rioting. The priests, who were not charged with any crime, ``shoulder the moral responsibility for escalating the events",Affifi said, urging church authorities to discipline the three.
Officials in the Coptic church's Cairo officials were unavailable for comment.
Gergis Awadh Silwanis, a 47-year-old Christian doctor found innocent of looting and arson, left the courthouse with his arm around a Muslim who also was acquitted. He said outsiders were to blame for the violence.
``We the people of el-Kusheh did not make any problem,'' he said.
Egypt's Christians, who are mostly Orthodox Copts, comprise 10 percent of the country's 64 million people and have generally lived peacefully with the overwhelmingly Muslim population.