ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Christians clashed with Egyptian police in the northern city of Alexandria on Saturday, furious over an apparent suicide bombing against worshippers 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.
The Interior Ministry blamed "foreign elements," and the Alexandria governor accused al-Qaida, 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-Qaida was involved, it raises the prospect of a serious new security threat within Egypt.
President Barack Obama condemned "this barbaric and heinous act" and said those behind it must be brought to justice.
The bombing, about a half hour after the stroke of the New Year, stoked tensions that have grown in recent years between Egypt’s Christians and the Muslim majority.
It was dramatically different from 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.
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. 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.
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 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, 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 with what appeared to be the victim’s blood.
Health Ministry spokesman Abdel-Rahman Shahine said the death toll stood at 21, with 97 wounded, almost all Christians. Among the wounded were the three policemen and an officer guarding the church.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement that it was likely the blast was detonated by a suicide bomber and that the attack probably involved "foreign elements." Investigators were examining two heads found at the site on suspicion at least one was the bomber, the state news agency MENA reported.
Al-Qaida 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.
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-Qaida role. But the government has insisted local extremists were to blame.
While the government has denied an al-Qaida 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-Qaida. There have been fears 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 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.
Hours after Saturday’s blast, 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."
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.
But many Christians in Alexandria were seething. Soon after the explosion, youths 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.
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 the resignation of Alexandria’s governor, Adel Labib.
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.
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.
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.
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-Qaida?" he said, speaking to the AP.
The possibility of involvement by al-Qaida 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.
Lee Keath reported from Cairo.