ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — A powerful bomb, possibly from a suicide attacker, exploded in front of a Coptic Christian church as a crowd of worshippers emerged from a New Years Mass early Saturday, killing at least 21 people and wounding nearly 80 in an attack that raised suspicions of an al-Qaida role.
The attack came in the wake of threats by al-Qaida militants in Iraq to attack Egypt’s Christians. A direct al-Qaida hand in the bombing would be a dramatic development, as the government of President Hosni Mubarak has long denied that the terror network has a significant presence in the country. Al-Qaida in Iraq has already been waging a campaign of violence against Christians in that country.
The bombing enraged Christians, who often complain of discrimination at the hands of Egypt’s Muslim majority and accuse the government of covering up attacks on their community. In heavy clashes Saturday afternoon, crowds of Christian youths in the streets outside the church and a neighbouring hospital hurled stones at riot police, who opened fire with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Egypt has seen growing tensions between its Muslim majority and Christian minority — and the attack raised a dangerous new worry, that al-Qaida or militants sympathetic to it could be aiming to stoke sectarian anger or exploit it to gain a foothold.
Nearly 1,000 Christians were attending the New Year’s Mass at the Saints Church in the Mediterranean port city 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, as well as a mosque directly across the street. Bodies of many of the dead were collected from the street and kept inside the church overnight before they were taken away Saturday by ambulances for burial.
Some Christians carried white sheets with the sign of the cross emblazoned on them with what appeared to be the blood of the victims.
Health Ministry official Osama Abdel-Moneim said the death toll stood at 21, with 79 wounded. It was not immediately known if all the victims were Christians. It 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.
Police initially said the blast came from an explosives-packed vehicle parked about four meters (yards) from the church.
But the Interior Ministry said later it was likely the blast was detonated by a suicide bomber and that the attack probably involved “foreign elements.” It said there was no sign the epicenter of the blast was from a car. Around six severely damaged vehicles remained outside the church, but there was little sign of a crater that major car bombs usually cause. Bits of flesh were stuck to nearby walls.
Alexandria governor Adel Labib immediately blamed al-Qaida, pointing to recent threats by the terror group to attack Christians in Egypt. Both car bombs and suicide attackers are hallmark tactics of al-Qaida.
Whoever was behind it, the blast appeared qualitatively different from past attacks on Christians. Most recent anti-Christian violence has involved less sophisticated means, mainly shootings. Stabbings at three Alexandria churches in 2006 sparked three days of Muslim-Christian riots that left at least four dead.
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 raised allegations of an al-Qaida role, but the governments strongly denied a connection, blaming them on local extremists.
Hours after the blast, 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 prevent sectarian divisions, he said it was attack against “all Egypt” and that “terrorism does not distinguish between Copt and Muslim.” Egypt’s top Muslim leaders also expressed their condolences and unity with Christians.
But Christians at the church unleashed their fury at authorities they often accuse of failing to protect them. Soon after the explosion, angry Christians clashed with police, chanting, “With our blood and soul, we redeem the cross,” witnesses said.