Egyptian Christians vent anger over attack
Church bombing kills 21 attending Alexandria Mass
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Christians clashed with Egyptian police in the northern city of Alexandria yesterday, furious over an apparent suicide bombing against worshipers leaving a New Year’s Mass at a church that killed at least 21 people. The bombing was the worst violence against the country’s Christian minority in a decade.
The Interior Ministry blamed “foreign elements,’’ and the Alexandria governor accused Al Qaeda, pointing to the terror network’s branch in Iraq, which has carried out a string of attacks on Christians there and has threatened Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Christian community as well.
Egypt’s government has long insisted that the terror network does not have a significant presence in the country, and it has never been conclusively linked to any attacks here. If Al Qaeda was involved, it raises the prospect of a serious new security threat within Egypt.
President Obama condemned “this barbaric and heinous act’’ and said those behind it must be brought to justice.
The bombing, about a half hour after the start of the New Year, stoked tensions that have grown in recent years between Egypt’s Christians and the Muslim majority.
It was dramatically different from past attacks on Christians, which included shootings but not serious bombings, much less suicide attacks. Christians have increasingly blamed the government for not taking seriously violence against them or anti-Christian sentiment among Muslim hard-liners.
In the wake of the New Year’s bombing, many unleashed their rage at authorities.
“Now it’s between Christians and the government, not between Muslims and Christians,’’ shrieked one Christian woman as several hundred young men clashed with helmeted riot police in the street outside the targeted church hours after the blast. As the rioters threw stones and bottles, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse them. Some of the protesters beat Muslim passersby.
Nearly 1,000 Christians were attending the midnight Mass at Saints Church in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, said Father Mena Adel, a priest at the church. The service had just ended, and some worshipers were leaving the building when the bomb went off about a half-hour after midnight, he said.
“The last thing I heard was a powerful explosion, and then my ears went deaf,’’ Marco Boutros, a 17-year-old survivor, said from his hospital bed.
The blast damaged at least six cars on the street, setting some ablaze.
As bodies were taken away after daybreak, some in the congregation waved white sheets with the sign of the cross emblazoned on them with what appeared to be the victims’ blood.
Health Ministry spokesman Abdel-Rahman Shahine said the death toll stood at 21, with 97 wounded, almost all Christians. Among the wounded were the three police and an officer guarding the church.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement that it was likely the blast was detonated by a suicide bomber and that the attack probably involved “foreign elements.’’ Investigators were examining two heads found at the site on suspicion at least one was the bomber, the state news agency MENA reported.
Al Qaeda in Iraq has made a series of threats against Christians. The latest just before Christmas led the Iraqi Christian community to cancel most holiday festivities.
After militants attacked a church in Baghdad in October and killed 68 people, it threatened more attacks and linked the violence to two Egyptian Christian women who reportedly converted to Islam in order to get divorces, which are prohibited by the Coptic Church.
The women have since been secluded by the Church, prompting repeated protests by Islamic hard-liners in Egypt accusing the Church of imprisoning the women and forcing them to renounce Islam, a claim the Church denies.
The last major terror attacks in Egypt were between 2004-2006, when bombings — including some by suicide attackers — hit three tourist resorts in the Sinai peninsula, killing 125 people. Those attacks initially raised allegations of an Al Qaeda role. But the government has said local extremists were to blame.
Alexandria has become a stronghold for Islamic hard-liners the past decade. Stabbings at three Alexandria churches in 2006 sparked three days of Muslim-Christian riots that left at least four dead, though it has seen little violence since.
Christians, mainly Orthodox Copts, are believed to make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of nearly 80 million people, and they have grown increasingly vocal in complaints about discrimination.
In November, hundreds of Christians rioted in the capital, Cairo, smashing cars and windows after police violently stopped the construction of a church. The rare outbreak of Christian unrest in the capital left one person dead.