Advertisement

Sunday 02 January 2011

Car bomb in Egypt kills at least 17 outside Christian church

Egypt’s government appealed for calm on Saturday after a suspected suicide bomber attacked a Christian church in the country’s worst act of sectarian violence in years.

At least 17 people were killed and 70 more wounded in the explosion outside the Saints Church in the port city of Alexandria, around midnight on New Year’s Eve. The majority of victims were members of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority attending a service to welcome in 2011, although Muslim bystanders were also reported to have died.

The attack, which left blood and body parts scattered on the street, prompted angry protests from worshippers, and in the aftermath of the bombing, riot police were forced to intervene with tear gas as groups of Christians and Muslims hurled stones at each other.

As of last night, there had been no claim of responsibility for the bombing, but it follows a series of al-Qaeda-led attacks on Christians in Iraq, and a number of threats made by the terrorist group to their religious brethren in Egypt.

“People went in to church to pray to God but ended up as scattered limbs,” said Kameel Sadeeq, from the Coptic council in Alexandria.. “This massacre has al Qaeda written all over, the same pattern Qaeda has adopted in other countries.”

The blast came from a car parked outside the church, but police said they were still investigating whether the car had been rigged with explosives or if a bomb had been placed under it. “I was inside the church and heard a huge explosion,” said Father Mena Adel, a priest at the church. “People’s bodies were in flames.”

In a speech last night, Egypt’s ageing president, Hosni Mubarak, blamed the attack on “foreign hands” and called for Christians and Muslims to show unity.

“This blind terrorism does not differentiate between Copts and Muslims,” said Mr Mubarak, 82. “We will all cut off the head of the snake, confront terrorism and defeat it.”

However, the fact that the bomb plot had gone undetected raised questions over the competency of the Egyptian security forces, who are invested with far-ranging and draconian powers to stop terrorist activity.

Christians make up about 10 percent of Muslim-majority Egypt’s 79 million people. Tensions often flare between the two communities over issues such as building churches or relationships between men and women of the two faiths.

However, observers said that the latest attack was in a different league to the sporadic violence that usually erupts when communal frustrations boil over.

“This tragic incident certainly does not match any other sectarian assault that my organisation has documented over the past few years,” said Hossam Bahgat, an Egyptian human rights campaigner.

The recent campaign of attacks against Middle Eastern Christians began with the siege of a church in Baghdad last October, when al-Qaida gunmen killed 68 worshippers. Once a million-strong, Christian numbers have already plummeted in Iraq during the seven years of violence since the US-led invasion.

While al-Qaeda’s Sunni extremist ideology generally holds Shia Muslims in as much contempt as Christians, it is thought the terrorist group is focusing on the Christian minorities as an easy way of gaining international publicity.

Yesterday’s attack brought condemnation from religious leaders worlwide, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who spoke of his “deep sorrow”.

“The New Year’s Eve attack on Christians in Alexandria is yet another dreadful reminder of the pressure Christian minorities are under in the Middle East, echoing the atrocities we have seen in recent weeks,” Dr Williams said.

“We know the long and honourable history of co-existence of Christians and Muslims in Egypt and are confident that the overwhelming majority of Egyptian people will join in condemning this and similar acts.”

Christians were once a majority in Egypt, but the balance gradually changed following the Islamic conquest of the 7th century. As a minority, they have grown increasingly vocal in modern times over complaints about discrimination.

There have been occasional attacks targeting Christians — most notably, in January 2009, seven Christians were killed in a drive-by shooting on a church in southern Egypt during celebrations for the Orthodox Coptic Christmas.

The Saints Church in Alexandria also came under attack in April 2006, when a man with a knife stabbed worshippers.

In November, Al-Qaeda in Iraq issued threats against the Egyptian church over the case of two Christian women who reportedly converted to Islam in order to get divorces from their husbands.

The Coptic Church forbids almost all divorce, meaning leaving the religion is sometimes the only option to escape an abusive or unhappy marriage.

Islamic hardliners in Egypt accused the Church of imprisoning the women against their will and preventing them from converting, claims denied by church officials.

Mindful of the tensions, the Egyptian government recently stepped up security around churches, banning cars from parking outside them.

Advertisement

sponsored features

Loading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Classified Advertising

Loading