By LIAM STACK and DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
Published: January 2, 2011
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Egyptian security officers, many in riot gear, filled the streets of Cairo and Alexandria on Sunday to tamp down scattered protests by Coptic Christians and others blaming government negligence for a bombing here that killed 21 and wounded nearly 100 leaving a New Year’s Mass.
Ben Curtis/Associated Press
A woman cried out after a mass inside the Saints Church in Alexandria, Egypt, where 21 people were killed in a bomb attack on Saturday.
Fatal Bomb Hits a Church in Egypt (January 2, 2011)
Demonstrators ran past a line of riot police officers, background, on Sunday near the Coptic church in Alexandria that was attacked early Saturday.
“If this happened in a mosque, the government would be doing something,” yelled one parishioner in an angry street protest after Sunday morning Mass at Saints Church, the site of the bombing, where a crucifix wrapped in a blood-stained sheet stood sentinel. “But this happens to us every year, and every day, and they do nothing.”
The bombing, at a midnight Mass early Saturday morning, followed the bloodiest year in four decades of sectarian tensions in Egypt, beginning with a Muslim gunman’s killings of nine people outside another midnight Mass, at a church in the city of Nag Hammadi on Jan. 6, the Coptic Christmas.
Analysts said the weekend bombing was in a sense the culmination of a long escalation of violence against Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population. But at the same time the blast’s planning and scale — a suicide bomber evidently detonated a locally made explosive device packed with nails and other shrapnel, the authorities said Sunday — were a break with the smaller episodes of intra-communal violence that have marked Muslim-Christian relations for the past decade.
Instead, it was reminiscent of the 1990s attacks by Egyptian Islamist terrorists on Christians, tourists and government institutions. Analysts said the flare-up was likely to increase the domestic dissatisfaction with the 30-year-old tenure of President Hosni Mubarak, who has made preserving Egypt’s stability his guiding principle.
Egyptian authorities asserted throughout the weekend that the attack seemed at least inspired by Al Qaeda or other international groups. Although no one claimed responsibility for the bombing, some analysts noted that two months ago a group calling itself Al Qaeda in Iraq threatened attacks on Egyptian churches in retaliation for what it said had been a Coptic kidnapping of two women who sought to convert from Christianity to Islam. And in a rare televised address hours after the attack, President Mubarak said it was the work of “foreign fingers.”
But on Sunday, Egyptian authorities also acknowledged that the attack appeared to have been executed by local Egyptians, and analysts noted that the government invariably sought to blame foreign conspiracies or nonsectarian local disputes for Muslim-Christian violence in an attempt to avoid inflaming sectarian tensions.
The official MENA news agency reported that the authorities were examining the remains of two heads found after the blast in the belief that one might have belonged to the bomber.
The Egyptian Ministry of Information issued a statement urging news organizations to “emphasize the national aspect in addressing the national unity issue” and avoid “topics” or “details” that might “deepen the wounds and add fuel to the fire in an issue related to the security of the homeland.”
Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which tracks violence between Muslims and Copts, argued that the government’s denial of sectarian tension had exacerbated the problem.
“What we see is a heavy-handed response from the security agencies, arbitrary arrests on both sides of any conflict, and then forced reconciliations, where the victims are coerced into withdrawing their criminal complaints and accepting the arbitrary justice,” Mr. Bahgat said.
“The response is driven by security agencies whose main desire is to impose quiet after any incident and close the file,” he said, often letting off the true perpetrators.
A spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist group and the main political opposition to the Mubarak government, condemned the bombing, calling it “a threat to Egypt’s stability, which all divine religions explicitly forbid.”
Pope Shenouda III, the leader of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, called for the swift prosecution of the perpetrators and vowed that the attacks would not deter services for the Coptic Christmas this week.
President Obama, in a statement, called the attack “barbaric and heinous.” In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI called it a “vile gesture.”
In the aftermath of the New Year’s bombing, some Egyptians circulated appeals on Sunday over the Internet urging Muslims to attend Coptic Christmas services in a gesture of interfaith solidarity.
Others posted mourning messages on the Facebook page of Mariouma Fekry, a young woman killed in the bombing. Before leaving for the midnight Mass, she had written on her page, “this year has the best memories of my life” and “I have so many wishes in 2011 … hope they come true … plz god stay beside me & help make it all true.”
Liam Stack reported from Alexandria, Egypt, and David D. Kirkpatrick from Peru, Vt. Kareem Fahim contributed reporting from New York.