CAIRO – Egypt’s ruling military on Monday condemned a surge in deadly violence as an attempt to undermine the state, and warned it will act to safeguard the peace following a night of clashes that drew in Christians, Muslims and security forces.

The generals’ strong words signaled the governing military council will tighten its grip on power, further infuriating activists who have demanded an end to army rule and a transition to democracy.

Egypt’s Coptic Church harshly criticized the government for its actions in crushing the protests and accused it of allowing repeated attacks on Christians to go unpunished.

The clashes Sunday night were the worst sectarian violence since the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak eight months ago. The riots laid bare the volatility of Egyptian society a month before the start of parliamentary elections that will help define the country’s political landscape.

The Coptic Church, which represents about 10 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people, accused security forces of failing to stop anti-Christian agitators from turning what started as a peaceful protest against church attacks into a sectarian riot in which at least 26 people, mostly Christians, were killed.

“Strangers got in the middle of our sons and committed mistakes to be blamed on our sons,” the church said in a prepared statement after its spiritual leader, Pope Shenouda III, met with 70 bishops. “The Copts feel that problems are repeated and the perpetrators go unpunished.”

The statement reflected the growing fears of Egypt’s Copts, the largest Christian community in the Middle East, at a time when a security vacuum has left them vulnerable to a growing Islamist movement in the post-Mubarak era.

The military, which activists blamed for not doing enough to protect the Christian protesters, issued a stern warning that it intended to crack down hard on future protests.

In a statement, the military council said it will take the “necessary precautions to stabilize security” and use the full weight of the law to prosecute individuals involved in violence.

In an apparent response to concerns it will use the violence as an excuse to prolong its rule, the council pledged to make good on its promise to hand over power.

Sunday’s clashes began when about 1,000 Christians tried to stage a peaceful sit-in outside the state television building in Cairo.

The protesters said they were attacked by “thugs” with sticks, and the violence spiraled out of control after a speeding military vehicle veered into Christians on a sidewalk.