A devastating New Year’s Day terrorist bombing at a Coptic church in Egypt that killed 21 people was the latest in a spate of violent assaults against the Middle East’s vulnerable Christian communities.
The car bomb explosion also injured 79 people just after midnight Saturday as worshipers were leaving a New Year’s Mass at the Saints Church in east Alexandria, Egyptian officials said. The bombing sparked street clashes between police and angry Copts, who hurled stones, stormed a nearby mosque and threw some of its books into the street.
Security forces cordoned off the area and used tear gas to disperse the crowd. A witness told the state-run newspaper Al Ahram that a priest calmed the Copts and urged them to stay inside the church.
The attack was among the deadliest on Egyptian Christians in recent memory and the worst terrorist incident in the country since 2006, and followed similar assaults this week in Iraq.
All but eight of the injured and all of the fatalities in Alexandria were Christians, according to Egypt’s Ministry of Health. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which was being described as a suicide bombing. The explosion, which appeared designed to inflict maximum civilian casualties, bore the hallmark of Al Qaeda militants.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak accused unnamed foreign elements of being behind the attack.
“This act of terrorism shook the country’s conscience, shocked our feelings and hurt the hearts of Muslim and Coptic Egyptians,” he said in an emergency address to the nation. “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.”
The attack in the ancient Mediterranean coastal city was the latest in a wave of violence against once-resilient Christian communities in the Muslim world, some of which date back to antiquity.
Christmas Eve assaults by Muslim extremists killed dozens of Christians in the Nigerian cities of Jos and Maiduguri. And Iraq’s Christians have endured a relentless campaign of attacks and intimidation by the local branch of Al Qaeda.
An Oct. 31 siege on a Baghdad church that killed at least 58 parishioners and staff members sparked a new Christian exodus from the Iraqi capital and the northern city of Mosul. About 1,000 families sought refuge in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish enclave afterward, according to the United Nations. Further threats of violence by Islamic militants caused many Christians in Iraq to tone down Christmas celebrations, and attacks Thursday against 10 Christian targets left an elderly couple dead.
Officials across the Middle East, including the ultraconservative Muslim governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia, condemned Saturday’s attack, which was widely covered in television news broadcasts. In an annual New Year’s speech at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI urged the faithful to stave off despair over such violence, but also demanded that governments do more to protect religious minorities.
“In front of the current threatening tensions, in front of especially the discrimination tyranny and religious intolerance, that today hit in particular the Christians, once again I deliver the pressing invite to not cave in to the depression and resignation,” Benedict said, adding that officials’ “words are not enough” in confronting religious intolerance.
“There must be a concrete and constant effort from leaders of nations,” he said.
The Alexandria bombing transformed a joyous New Year celebration into a grim reminder of the country’s religious strife. A witness told Al Ahram that the massive explosion rocked the church.
“It was about 15 minutes after midnight when we heard the sound of the explosion. We came out of the church to find two cars on fire,” said Sami Saad, who was in the church when the bomb exploded. “Everyone was frightened and people were screaming after we saw scattered parts of the dead bodies mixing with blood on the ground.”
Making up about 10% of the country’s population, Copts are Egypt’s largest religious minority group and the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Religious violence between Muslims and Copts has increased in recent years, often triggered by interfaith marriages or conversions, especially in southern Egypt, where Copts live in larger communities.
Copts have also grown angry about the obstacles to building churches, when the authorization process is easy for construction of mosques.
Riots have frequently broken out. Two people died in November clashes in Cairo between Coptic demonstrators and police after local authorities refused to allow a community center to be turned into a church.
The violence lately has taken an ominous turn. In November, the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq announced that Coptic churches in Egypt would be targeted until two priests’ wives who were allegedly locked up in Coptic monasteries after converting to Islam are freed. Al Qaeda militants in Iraq have also referred to the women in justifying attacks on once-vibrant Christian communities in Baghdad and around Mosul.
Most Middle Eastern countries outside the Arabian Peninsula have sizable Christian communities, including the Maronites in Lebanon, Armenians in Iran and the Orthodox in Syria. But their numbers have shrunk over the last century, experts say. Christians now account for less than 5% of the Middle East’s population, down from 20%.
Authorities worry that Christian communities in relatively safe countries, such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iran, also are shrinking, though driven more by a search for economic opportunities that by fear of violence. They tend to be better educated and more Western-oriented than their Muslim compatriots and often utilize family or religious ties abroad to emigrate.