Worshipers in Alexandria, Egypt, returned Sunday to the church that was the target of a deadly New Year's Eve bombing to hold a somber mass amid sobering reminders of the worst attack on Egypt's Christian minority in more than a decade.
Glass and debris still lay strewn about on the floor of the Al Qidiseen church where the dead and wounded fell after a suspected suicide bomber detonated explosives shortly after midnight Friday evening, killing 21 and wounding more than 90.
In the sanctuary, some sobbed as they followed the priest in chanting prayers and took communion. But when they emerged, along with wails of grief, there were cries of anger.
Worshipers, many of whom were present on Friday night, bitterly accused the government of failing to protect them. “Where is the government? Where is the security?” screamed one distraught man as others attempted to restrain him.
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, have long accused the government of discrimination and injustice, feelings that have only escalated this year. Officials are already working in overdrive to prevent the bombing from deepening the rising tension between Christians and Muslims. But the startling violence of the attack is also likely to exaggerate the growing distrust of and isolation from their government felt by Copts.
“Christians believe that they are under attack,” says Sameh Fawzy, a Coptic columnist for El Shorouq newspaper. “They think that they are discriminated against in some fields, they think that some crimes against them continue without proper judgment. They think that they are denied access to some key positions in the state. They think that they are politically underrepresented.” Their reaction to this violent attack, he says, “reveals their feeling that there is prejudice against them.”
Growing mistrust of government
The government’s failure to address their grievances has caused the problem to grow, and it was on display Saturday when Christian men clashed with police outside the church as they angrily shouted slogans against the security forces.
Eyewitnesses said police used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up the protests. The streets were calm Sunday as row upon row of security forces in riot gear ringed the block. But inside the church, young men shouted angrily and demanded to know where the police were on the night of the attack.
Policemen were among the wounded in the attack, according to the Interior Ministry. But congregants insisted that few were present that night.
The Christian community in Egypt, mostly Coptic Orthodox, has increasingly retreated to the church as it feels more discrimination at the hands of the government, leading to increased isolation from the rest of society.
Events this year have only increased tension. In November, Christians in a poor area of Cairo rioted after authorities halted construction of a church. A harsh response by security killed one Christian, and 152 more were arrested. Last Christmas Eve, six Christians and one Muslim were shot dead outside a church in the southern town of Naga Hammadi, and the trial for the accused was repeatedly delayed.
A new level of violence
Sectarian attacks in Egypt are usually far less deadly than the New Year's Eve bombing, and they usually do not involve explosives. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Egyptian officials have blamed “foreign elements.” An Al Qaeda-affiliated militant organization in Iraq has repeatedly threatened to attack Coptic Christians in Egypt, saying the church was holding two women against their will to keep them from converting to Islam.
The government is eager to portray the attack as work of outsiders to dispel sectarian tension, which was evident among some worshipers at the church Sunday.
'They hate us'
Samira Fawzy, who lost two sisters and a niece in the explosion, stood outside the sanctuary after mass, clad in black, with a heavy face and red-rimmed eyes.
“They hate us,” she said of Egyptian Muslims. “All of them say they feel sorry, but we know that they hate us very, very much.”
Her niece Marina, who was killed in the blast, was due to get married in two weeks. “She had bought everything for her wedding,” said Ms. Fawzy before turning away in tears.
Another man said he was wounded fighting for Egypt in the October War, or Yom Kippur War, against Israel. “I brought water to my Muslim comrade who was also wounded,” he said. “And this is how they repay me?”
'Not angry at Muslims'
But many others said they did not hold their Muslim neighbors accountable for the crime. “I'm not angry at the Muslims. They were standing with us. We're angry at the terrorists,” says Mina Adel, a young man who was in the church when the blast rocked the building. But he did direct anger toward the security forces.
“After the explosion, the police were hitting us," says Mr. Adel. "Where were they at the time of the explosion?”
In the hospital next door, a middle-aged man lay on a gurney with a fractured skull and an oxygen mask strapped to his face. He echoed Adel’s complaint, saying his wounds came not from the explosion, but at the hands of the security forces Saturday evening as he attempted to enter the church to help retrieve the bodies for the funeral.
“The security forces wouldn’t let me in,” he said. “They beat me.”
In another room, a 3-year-old girl with burns on her face stared blankly at the ceiling, her legs wounded by the bolts and ball bearings packed into the bomb. Her mother and sister were also wounded in the attack, so her aunt and grandmother tended to her, trying to make her comfortable.
Appeals for calm
Back at the Al Qidiseen church, a priest urged young men not to cause trouble in the streets, and to go straight home after the service.
Afterward, head priest Maqar Fawzy sought to dispel anger toward Muslims.
“We must have an attitude of prayer and love toward all people. We will not turn to hatred,” he said. He blamed the attack on extremists and fanatics, saying, “At the beginning we thought it was sectarian, but now we are sure it is not.”