Of­fi­cials point to al-Qaeda af­ter at­tack on Chris­tians in Egypt

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY SHER­INE BAY­OUMI fadell@wash­post.com Bay­oumi is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent. Cor­re­spon­dent Leila Fadel con­trib­uted to this re­port from Port­land, Maine.

cairo — Chris­tians clashed with Egyp­tian po­lice in the north­ern port city of Alexan­dria on Satur­day, en­raged af­ter an ap­par­ent sui­cide bomber killed at least 21 Chris­tian wor­shipers and wounded at least 97 oth­ers ear­lier in the day, Egypt’s Health Min­istry said. The at­tack marked the worst vi­o­lence against Egypt’s Chris­tian mi­nor­ity in more than a decade.

As hun­dreds of Cop­tic Chris­tian wor­shipers were leav­ing a New Year’s Mass at Saints Church shortly af­ter mid­night, a bomber stepped out of a car and det­o­nated him­self in the crowd, ac­cord­ing to the In­te­rior Min­istry. Egyp­tian of­fi­cials and Mus­lim lead­ers quickly con­demned the at­tack.

A graphic video of the bomb­ing shared on YouTube showed ter­ri­fied peo­ple run­ning out of the church to in­ves­ti­gate as oth­ers screamed in ter­ror. At least one-car was in flames. Blood-stained sheets cov­ered the dead.

Some Egyp­tian of­fi­cials blamed for­eign forces, with Alexan­dria Gov. Adel Labib and Ali Ed­din Hi­lal, the spokesman for Pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak’s rul­ing party, sin­gling out al-Qaeda. The Sunni ter­ror­ist net­work’s af­fil­i­ate alQaeda in Iraq has as­serted re­spon­si­bil­ity for a string of re­cent attacks on Chris­tians in that coun­try and threat­ened Egypt’s Cop­tic Ortho­dox com­mu­nity.

If al-Qaeda’s in­volve­ment were proved, it would raise new se­cu­rity con­cerns in Egypt, an Arab nation where the govern­ment has long in­sisted that the ex­trem­ist group does not have a foothold. It would also raise ques­tions about the scope of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s in­flu­ence out­side Iraq.

In the group’s dead­li­est at­tack on Chris­tians last year, mil­i­tants stormed a Baghdad church in Oc­to­ber, killing dozens. The group vowed to mount more attacks, cit­ing the case of two Egyp­tian-Chris­tian women who had re­port­edly con­verted to Is­lam to ob­tain di­vorces, a prac­tice the Cop­tic Church pro­hibits. It ac­cused the church of im­pris­on­ing and iso­lat­ing the women and forc­ing them to dis­avow Is­lam, which the church de­nies.

In a state­ment is­sued Satur­day, the Cop­tic Church did not at­tribute the at­tack to for­eign forces, call­ing it in­stead an “es­ca­la­tion of sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence against Copts,” ac­cord­ing to the Egyp­tian daily al-Masry al-Youm.

Sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence is not new to Egypt, but the lat­est at­tack was much dead­lier than those in the re­cent past. In April 2006, 78-yearold Nushi Atta Gir­gis, a Cop­tic Chris­tian, was stabbed to death in one of a rash of attacks on churches in Alexan­dria. In Jan­uary 2010, six dea­cons were killed in a driveby shoot­ing as they walked out of a church in Naga Ham­madi, in south­ern Egypt, af­ter a Cop­tic Christ­mas Mass.

Mubarak con­demned Satur­day’s at­tack on na­tional tele­vi­sion and urged “Egypt’s sons, Copts and Mus­lims to close ranks against ter­ror­ism.” Egyp­tian of­fi­cials were quick to de­scribe the bomb­ing as an at­tack against “all Egyp­tians” in an ap­par­ent bid to pre­vent sec­tar­ian fall­out.

On Satur­day, Chris­tians in Alexan­dria chanted that they would pro­tect the cross with their blood as po­lice used tear gas and rub­ber bul­lets to break up the crowd, al-Masry al-Youm re­ported.

At the St. Mina Monastery west of Alexan­dria, at least 10,000 peo­ple walked in a pro­ces­sion fol­low­ing eight am­bu­lances that car­ried the coffins of the vic­tims, lo­cal Egyp­tian me­dia re­ported.

Mean­while, in a New Year’s mes­sage from the Vat­i­can, Pope Bene­dict XVI con­demned vi­o­lence against Chris­tians in the Mid­dle East and urged the faith­ful to re­main strong.

TAREK FAWZY/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Egyp­tian Chris­tians grieve in front of coffins con­tain­ing vic­tims of a sui­cide bomb­ing in the port city of Alexan­dria. The at­tack tar­geted wor­shipers leav­ing New Year’sMass at a Cop­tic Chris­tian church.

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