Dozens of Coptic Christians have clashed with Egyptian riot police in Cairo following a bomb attack outside a church in Alexandria that killed 21 people.
Protesters hurled rocks at security forces, who later charged into the crowd swinging truncheons. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
President Hosni Mubarak blamed yesterday’s church attack, which injured 96 people, on “foreign elements” and has urged Christians and Muslims to stand united. The Interior Ministry said it increased security around churches nationwide “in light of the escalating threats from al-Qaeda to many countries,” according to a statement on its website.
Sectarian violence and discrimination have worsened in Egypt in recent years, say Copts, a charge backed by the State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom report. Copts account for about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million people.
“The tension and the mutual hatred will rise” as a result of the attack, Moustafa El-Husseini, author of a book “Egypt on the Brink of the Unknown,” said in a telephone interview. “The regime is ignoring this sectarian strife, which makes it escalate,” he said.
Egypt’s benchmark EGX30 stock index fell for the first time in five sessions, declining 0.8 percent to 7,082.40 at the close in Cairo. The measure gained 15 percent in 2010, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“You might see more impact this week with the return of investors and clients to their offices” after the holidays, Mohamed Radwan, a trader at Cairo-based Pharos Holding said. “Bear in mind that terrorist attacks are common globally nowadays, unlike a decade ago.”
The Cairo protest began as demonstrators, some carrying wooden crosses, marched in the streets, chanting pro-Christian slogans. Small groups later broke away and clashed with police.
“We won’t remain silent,” Ezzat Shokry, a 28-year-old grocer, said in an interview. “The government must protect us.”
The Alexandria attack, shortly after midnight as worshippers were leaving New Year’s mass, was likely carried out by a suicide bomber. No group has claimed responsibility.
“The epicenter of the blast wasn’t in one of the cars or the road,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
Egyptian police detained 17 suspects after the attack, Al Jazeera TV said, citing unidentified security officials.
Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq said in November it would attack Christian targets after it claimed Egypt’s Coptic Church was holding two Christian women who had converted to Islam. The church has denied this charge.
“The technical aspects of the execution, the large number of victims and the threats of al-Qaeda in Iraq all point to al- Qaeda’s fingerprints,” Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamist groups at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, wrote in Al Shorouk newspaper today.
Analysts, including Rashwan, have said they didn’t see signs of an organized al-Qaeda presence in Egypt. The group’s deputy leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, is Egyptian.
Police waged a war against Islamist militants, mainly in southern Egypt, during the 1990s. In 1997, militants killed more than 60 tourists in the ancient city of Luxor, sparking a security crackdown that brought attacks to a halt.
Series of Bombings
That respite ended with a series of bombings between 2004 and 2006 which targeted resorts in the Sinai Peninsula and killed more than 100 Egyptian and foreign tourists. Three attacks in Sinai, which police blamed on a previously unknown local group, occurred on the eve of national holidays. More than 20 people died in a 2006 bombing in the resort of Dahab, a year after more than 60 were killed in Sharm El-Sheikh.
The Coptic Orthodox Church was founded in Alexandria in the first century by Mark, one of the apostles of Jesus. After an Arab army conquered Egypt in the seventh century, Islam gradually became the country’s dominant religion.
Last January, six Christians were killed in a drive-by shooting outside a church in southern Egypt, while in November police killed a protester during clashes with Copts triggered by the halt of the construction of a church.
To contact the reporter on this story: Alaa Shahine in Cairo at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Louis Meixler, at email@example.com