Christians clashed with Egyptian police in the northern city of Alexandria on Saturday, furious over an apparent suicide bombing against worshipers leaving a New Year’s Mass at a church that killed at least 21 people. It was the worst violence against the country’s Christian minority in a decade. It was dramatically different than past attacks on Christians, which included shootings but not serious bombings, much less suicide attacks. Christians have increasingly blamed the government for not taking violence against them or anti-Christian sentiment among Muslim hard-liners seriously.
Nearly 1,000 Christians were attending the midnight Mass at the 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. A witness told the private On-TV channel that he had seen two men park a car outside the church and get out just before the blast.
“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. “All I could see were body parts scattered all over – legs and bits of flesh.” (New York Times) Blood spattered over the facade of the church, a painting of Jesus inside, and a mosque across the street. The blast mangled 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 in what appeared to be the victim’s blood.
The bombing, about a half hour after the stroke of the New Year, stroked tensions that have grown in recent years between Egypt’s Christians and the Muslim majority. In the wake of the New Year’s bombing, they 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. (New York Times) As the rioters threw stones and bottles, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse them. Some of the protesters beat Muslim passers-by.
Soon after the explosion, youths clashed with police, chanting, “With our blood and soul, we redeem the cross,” witnesses said. (New York Times) Some broke in to the nearby mosque, throwing books into the street and sparking stone- and bottle-throwing clashes with Muslims, an AP photographer at the scene said. In the afternoon, new violence erupted in a street between the church and the affiliated Saints Hospital. Some of the young protesters waved kitchen knives. One, his chest bared and a large tattoo of a cross on his arm, was carried into the hospital with several injuries from rubber bullets.
Later, hundreds gathered at an Alexandria monastery for funerals of the victims, chanting “Mubarak, the Copts’ blood is boiling,” and “we will no longer be afraid, we will no longer submit” as they waved crosses. Many shouted for resignation of Alexandria’s governor, Adel Labib.
Health Ministry official Osama Abdel-Moneim said the death toll stood at 21, with 79 wounded, almost all Christians. Among the wounded were three policemen and an officer guarding the church. Officials initially thought the cause was a car bomb, but the Interior Ministry later ruled it out, saying the attack was instead “carried out by a suicide bomber who died among the crowd.” (BBC)
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. Investigators were examining two heads found at the site on suspicion at least one was the bomber, the news agency MENA reported.
“The first and most likely possibility is that a sleeper cell of al-Qaeda group carried out this operation and this would mean that al-Qaeda has penetrated the Islamic political movement in Egypt,” said analyst Nabil Abdel-Fattah. (Reuters) Alexandria governor Adel Labib “accused al-Qaeda of planning the bombing,” state television reported. (Reuters)
President Barack Obama condemned “this barbaric and heinous act” and said those behind it must be brought to justice. (New York Times) The embassy of the United States, a close ally of Egypt, expressed condolences to victims of the “terrible event.” (Reuters) Other Western and regional states also condemned the bombing.
An Iraqi deputy interior minister, Hussein Kamal, urged Arab states to cooperate in the fight against terrorism and to help stop Arab militants training in Iraq and then returning home.
Hours after Saturday’s blast, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak went on state TV and vowed to track down those behind the attack saying: “We will cut off the hands of terrorists and those plotting against Egypt’s security.” Aiming to calm sectarian tension, he said the attack targeted “all Egypt” and that “terrorism does not distinguish between Copt and Muslim.” (New York Times) President Mubarak has urged Muslims and Christians to stand united against terrorism. Mubarak said the bombing bore the hallmark of “foreign hands” seeking to destabilize Egypt. (BBC) Mubarak went on to express his shock and vow to track down those behind it. “This act of terrorism shook the country’s conscience, shocked our feelings and hurt the hearts of Muslim and Coptic Egyptians,” he said. “The blood of the martyrs in Alexandria mixed to tell us all that all Egypt is the target and that blind terrorism does not differentiate between a Copt and a Muslim. We are all in this together and will face up to terrorism and defeat it.” (BBC)
Egypt’s top Muslim leaders also expressed their condolences and solidarity with Christians, and the biggest fundamentalist opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, condemned the bombing. Dozens of Christians and Muslims held solidarity marches near the site and in Cairo, and some chanted slogans against Mubarak. “There are people who want this country to be unstable, and all fingers point to outside hands being behind this incident,” senior group member Mohamed el-Katatni said. (Reuters)
Archbishop Raweis, the top Coptic cleric in Alexandria, denounced what he called a lack of protection.“There were only three soldiers and an officer in front of the church. Why did they have so little security at such a sensitive time when there’s so many threats coming from al-Qaeda?” he said, speaking to the Associated Press.
Pope Benedict XVI spoke out Saturday against the attacks and rallied worshipers not to “cave into depression and resignation.” During his New Year’s Day homily titled “Religious Freedom, the road to peace,” Benedict asked followers and governments to join in efforts in combating religious persecution. “Mankind cannot resign himself to the negative forces of egoism and violence,” the pontiff said, adding that governments must show a willingness to combat violence. “For this difficult task, words are not enough, there must be a concrete and constant effort from leaders of nations,” he said. “Above all, it is necessary that each person is driven by the authentic spirit of peace, always imploring over and again in prayer,” he said. “In front of the current threatening tensions, in front of specially and discrimination tyranny and religious intolerance, that today hit in particular the Christians, once again I deliver the pressing invite not to cave into the depression and resignation,” Benedict said. (CNN)
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.
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.
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 insisted local extremists were to blame.
The bombing was the deadliest violence involving Christians in Egypt since at least 20 people, mostly Christians, were killed in sectarian clashes in a southern town in 1999. In the most recent significant attack, seven Christians were killed in a drive-by shooting on a church in southern Egypt during celebrations for the Orthodox Coptic Christmas a year ago.
While the government has denied an al-Qaeda presence, Egypt does have a rising movement of Islamic hard-liners who, while they do not advocate violence, adhere to an ideology similar in other ways to al-Qaeda. There have been fears that they could be further radicalized by sectarian tensions.
Alexandria, the famed city of antiquity which a century ago Egypt’s most cosmopolitan city with a mix of Muslims, Christians and foreigners, has become a stronghold for Islamic hard-liners in 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’s seen little violence since. Eruptions of Muslim-Christian violence are often intermeshed with local tribal or personal disputes. But many Christians also blame rising Islamic extremism and anti-Christian sentiment and accuse the government of always pointing the finger at lone renegades or mentally ill people to avoid addressing sectarian problems and possibly angering Muslims.
Christians, mainly Orthodox Copts, are believed to make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s mainly Muslim population of nearly 80 million people, and they have grown increasingly vocal in complaints about discrimination.
The possibility of involvement by al-Qaeda or its sympathizers introduces a dangerous new element. Egypt faced a wave of Islamic militant violence in the 1990s which peaked with a 1997 massacre of nearly 60 tourists at a Pharaonic temple in Luxor. The government suppressed the insurgency with a fierce crackdown.