Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
Using a knife, an Egyptian Christian tries to get inside a mosque beside a Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria, Egypt, Jan. 1. A bomb killed at least 21 people outside the church in the Egyptian city of Alexandria early on New Year's Day. The Interior Ministry said a foreign-backed suicide bomber may have been responsible.

Egypt church bombing: Why some point to Al Qaeda-linked group

At least 21 were killed in an Egypt church bombing early today that came just as 1,000 Coptic Christians were leaving a New Year's Eve mass in Alexandria.

An Egypt church bombing today has raised fears that global terrorist organizations are exploiting the country's rising sectarian tension as justification for attacking Christians.

The powerful explosion took place outside a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria during a New Year's Eve mass early Saturday, killing at least 21 people and wounding more than 80. It came just as some of the worshipers, who numbered about 1,000, had begun to leave. Wrecked cars and debris were left scattered in the street.

Security authorities initially said the blast had come from a car bomb, but later said it appeared to have come from a suicide bomber, and not a car. A statement released by the Interior Ministry said the bomb was filled with nuts and bearings to kill as many as possible.

Egyptian authorities were quick to blame the attack on foreign terrorists, and denied that it was connected to sectarian tension.

In recent months, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq has repeatedly threatened to attack Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population, and has pointed to events in Egypt as justification for attacking Christians in Iraq.

Egyptian leaders call for unity

President Hosni Mubarak gave a televised speech Saturday calling the perpetrators “wicked terrorists” and insisting the attack bore the hallmarks of foreign hands.

Official statements sought to portray the bombing as an attack on all Egypt, and called on Egyptians to come together in a unified response. Muslim leaders released statements condemning the attack.

But Copts gathered outside the church and the hospital where many of the wounded were being held angrily accused the government of doing little to protect them. Police reportedly used rubber bullets and tear gas against the protesters, at least one of whom held a white sheet with a cross that appeared to have been painted with blood.

Rising sectarian tensions

Tension between Copts and Muslims has intensified over the past year, but sectarian attacks usually take the form of shootings, stabbings, or riots, and are far less deadly. The use of a bomb in Saturday’s attack raises the concern that it was connected to recent threats by Al Qaeda in Iraq.

That organization threatened to attack Coptic Christians after the wives of two priests in Egypt disappeared over the summer. The women had reportedly attempted to convert to Islam in order to divorce, which is prohibited by the Coptic church. Hard-line Muslims in Egypt claimed the church had kidnapped them and held them in a monastery to prevent them from converting.

The incident sparked angry demonstrations on both sides in Egypt, and was cited by the Islamic State of Iraq as justification for its deadly November attack on a church in Baghdad that killed at least 58 people.

The Islamic State of Iraq renewed its warning against Coptic Christians in December, demanding that the church release the women.

On Christmas Eve a year ago, seven people, including one Muslim, were shot dead as they left a Christmas Eve service at a Coptic church in the southern town of Naga Hammadi. In November of this year, Christians in a poor area of Giza rioted after security forces halted the construction of a church. Police responded forcefully, killing one person and arresting nearly 150.

Egypt has also battled Islamic terrorism, crushing a wave of attacks in the 1990s. The last major attacks, which involved suicide bombers, occurred at tourist sites from 2004-06. But at the time of those attacks, the Egyptian government strongly rejected that groups like Al Qaeda were operating in Egypt.

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