A powerful bomb, possibly from a suicide attacker, exploded in front of a Coptic Christian church as a crowd of worshippers emerged from a New Years Mass early Saturday, killing at least 21 people and wounding nearly 80 in an attack that raised suspicions of an al-Qaida role.
The attack came in the wake of repeated threats by al-Qaida militants in Iraq to attack Egypt’s Christians. A direct al-Qaida hand in the bombing would be a dramatic development, as the government of President Hosni Mubarak has long denied that the terror network has a significant presence in the country. Al-Qaida in Iraq has already been waging a campaign of violence against Christians in that country.
The bombing enraged Christians, who often complain of discrimination at the hands of Egypt’s Muslim majority and accuse the government of covering up attacks on their community. In heavy clashes Saturday afternoon, crowds of Christian youths in the streets outside the Saints Church and a neighboring hospital hurled stones at riot police, who opened fire with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Egypt has seen growing tensions between its Muslim majority and Christian minority — and the attack raised a dangerous new worry, that al-Qaida or militants sympathetic to it could be aiming to stoke sectarian anger or exploit it to gain a foothold.
Nearly 1,000 Christians were attending the New Year’s Mass at the Saints Church in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, said Father Mena Adel, a priest at the church. The service had just ended, and some worshippers 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. “All I could see were body parts scattered all over — legs and bits of flesh.”
Blood splattered the facade of the church, as well as a mosque directly across the street. Bodies of many of the dead were collected from the street and kept inside the church overnight before they were taken away Saturday by ambulances for burial.
Some Christians carried white sheets with the sign of the cross emblazoned on them with what appeared to be the blood of the victims.
Health Ministry official Osama Abdel-Moneim said the death toll stood at 21, with 79 wounded. It was not immediately known if all the victims were Christians. It 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.
Police initially said the blast came from an explosives-packed vehicle parked about four meters (yards) from the church.
But the Interior Ministry said later in a statement that there was no sign that the epicenter was a car. That “makes it likely that the explosives … were carried on the person of a suicide attacker who died with the others,” it said.
Around six severely damaged vehicles remained outside the church, but there was little sign of a crater that major car bombs usually cause. Bits of flesh were stuck to nearby walls.
Both car bombs and suicide attackers are hallmark tactics of al-Qaida, and they have rarely been used in Egypt. Most recent attacks on Christians or churches have been by less sophisticated means — mainly shootings.
The last major terror attacks in Egypt were between 2004-2006, when bombings — including some suicide attackers — hit three tourist resorts in the Sinai peninsula, killing 125 people. Those attacks raised allegations of an al-Qaida role, but the governments strongly denied a connection, blaming them on local extremists.
Hours after the blast, President 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 prevent sectarian divisions, he said it was attack against “all Egypt” and that “terrorism does not distinguish between Copt and Muslim.”
But Christians at the church unleashed their fury at authorities they often accuse of failing to protect them. Soon after the explosion, angry Christians clashed with police, chanting, “With our blood and soul, we redeem the cross,” witnesses said. Some broke in to the mosque across the street, throwing books into the street and sparking stone- and bottle-throwing clashes with Muslims, an AP photographer at the scene said.
Police fired tear gas to break up the clashes. But 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. “Now it’s between Christians and the government, not between Muslims and Christians,” shouted one Christian woman at the hospital.
In a reflection of the deepening mistrust between Egypt’s communities, many in the crowd believed police would not fully investigate the bombing, reflecting Christians’ suspicions that authorities often overlook attacks on their community.
Archbishop Arweis, the top Coptic cleric in Alexandria, said police want to blame a suicide bomber instead of a car bomb so they can write it off as a lone attacker. He 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-Qaida?” he said, speaking to the AP.
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. 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.
Alexandria governor Adel Labib immediately blamed al-Qaida, pointing to recent threats by the terror group to attack Christians in Egypt.