Egyptian Christians protest after bomb attack at church kills 21

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Christians in Egypt staged protests in three cities yesterday to protest against the government's failure to protect them after a bombing blamed on Islamic militants that killed 21 people as worshippers left a church service 30 minutes into the new year.

Security forces maintained a heavy security presence around the Saints Church in the northern port city of Alexandria where morning Mass was held amid the debris of the blast and bloodstained walls.

Hundreds of black-clad riot police and dozens of security forces' personnel carriers later cordoned off the street, preventing mourners from entering while emotions ran high. "I want to know those who killed these people in there, why did they do it? God created life, who are men to take it?" wailed Aida Scond, a Coptic Christian woman outside the barricades. "Who do they think they are?"

Pope Benedict XVI joined Egypt's leading religious leaders in condemning the attack. He called the bombing a "vile gesture" that "offends God and all humanity".

No group has admitted responsibility for the attack, but security officials said police were looking at the possibility that Islamic hardliners in Alexandria were behind it. Seven people were being questioned yesterday, a security source told Reuters. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, called the perpetrators "foreign agents" and vowed to track them down.

"This act of terrorism shook the country's conscience, shocked our feelings and hurt the hearts of Muslim and Coptic Egyptians," Mr Mubarak said in his address. "The blood of their martyrs in the land of Alexandria mixed to tell us all that all Egypt is the target and that blind terrorism does not differentiate between a Copt and a Muslim."

Street protests broke out for the second day since the attack in the narrow alleys outside the blocked church at the centre of the attack.

The demonstration yesterday was less serious than on Saturday when an enraged mob clashed with police and broke into a nearby mosque, throwing books, stones and bottles. Police responded by firing tear gas on the protesters.

A group of about 40 Christians yesterday chanted anti-government and religious slogans after complaining that they were not allowed into to the church. Many expressed dissatisfaction with the Egyptian government for failing to protect the country's largest religious minority.

Al-Qa'ida in Iraq announced in November that Christians in Egypt would be targeted until two priests' wives who were allegedly detained in monasteries after attempting to convert to Islam were freed. The Egyptian government beefed up security around Christian places of worship in response to the threats, but as Alexandria mourns, it appears it was not enough.

Christians, predominantly of the Coptic Orthodox faith, make up about 10 per cent of Egypt's 80 million. "I don't have a lot to say, we have to get our rights back. The police are preventing us from entering the church. This is unjust, discriminatory government and Christians in Egypt have never been more oppressed than now," said Hani Surial, one of the demonstrators at the church. There were other protests in Cairo and Assiut in southern Egypt.

In Egypt, sectarian tension is always at a simmer, but the bombing is the worst attack on its Christian minority in over a decade. It came almost a year after six Christians leaving Orthodox Christmas Mass in a town in southern Egypt were killed in a drive-by shooting. In November, two people died in a riot in Cairo over the construction of a church.

"Attacks on worshippers in churches are a relatively new phenomenon in Egypt. Most previous attacks involving church buildings focused on the buildings themselves, not people," wrote Cornelis Hulsman, chief editor of the Arab West report, an electronic magazine that chronicles instances of sectarian violence in Egypt. According to the Arab West report this is the fourth such attack on Christians since 1997 and the most fatal.

An embattled community

* Coptic is the modern term for Egyptian Christians. The Christian community, mainly Orthodox Copts, make up about 10 per cent of Egypt's mainly Muslim population of nearly 80 million people. It is based on the teachings of Saint Mark who brought Christianity to Egypt during the time of Emperor Nero in the 1st-century.

Outside of Egypt, there are roughly four million Copts under the leadership of Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic Church. As a minority in Egypt, they have suffered considerable sectarian violence in the last 40 years. Human rights groups have noted an even greater amount of religious intolerance in recent years.

John Elmes

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