ALEXANDRIA, Egypt – 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 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 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 it was likely the blast was detonated by a suicide bomber and that the attack probably involved “foreign elements.” It said there was no sign the epicenter of the blast was from a car. 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.
Alexandria governor Adel Labib immediately blamed al-Qaida, pointing to recent threats by the terror group to attack Christians in Egypt. Both car bombs and suicide attackers are hallmark tactics of al-Qaida.
Whoever was behind it, the blast appeared qualitatively different from past attacks on Christians. Most recent anti-Christian violence has involved less sophisticated means, mainly shootings. Stabbings at three Alexandria churches in 2006 sparked three days of Muslim-Christian riots that left at least four dead.
Egypt faced a wave of Islamic militant violence in the 1990s, that peaked with a 1997 massacre of nearly 60 tourists at a Pharaonic temple in Luxor. But the government suppressed the insurgency with a fierce crackdown.
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 raised allegations of an al-Qaida role, but the governments strongly denied a connection, blaming them on local extremists.
Hours after the blast, 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.” Egypt’s top Muslim leaders also expressed their condolences and unity with Christians.
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 nearby mosque, 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.
Many Christians blame violence against their community on Islamic extremists. They accuse the government of blaming attacks on lone renegades or mentally ill people to avoid addressing what they call anti-Christian sentiment among Muslims. The mistrust of the government is so great, that even the ministry’s report that a suicide bomber was behind Saturday’s blast raised suspicion among some Christians.
Archbishop Raweis, 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.
Just before Christmas, al-Qaida in Iraq made its latest threat to attack Christians. The group claims to be waging its anti-Christian campaign in the name of 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 Islamic hard-liners to hold frequent protests in past months, accusing the Church of imprisoning the women and forcing them to renounce Islam, a claim the Church denies.