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01.02.11

Egypt's Church Bombing: Was Al Qaeda Responsible?

The recent bombing of a crowded church Mass is being blamed on the terrorist group, but as Liam Stack reports from Alexandria, Christians and Muslims are blaming Egypt’s own government.

A woman hunched over a table in the office of the Saints Church sobbing heavily with her face in her hands, a black crucifix swinging from her neck. Shattered glass from a row of blown-out windows crunched beneath her feet.

“I can’t bear it! I can’t!” She wailed, “Oh God, I can’t!”

A friend held her and slowly stroked her hair, concealed beneath the ceremonial veil Coptic Christian women wear during a religious service.

“It’s OK, it’s OK,” she soothed, “God is here. God is here.”

Sunday Mass at Saints Church was a frightened and somber affair, less than two days after the calm of Friday’s New Year’s Eve service was shattered by a deadly bomb attack that killed at least 21 and injured dozens here in Egypt’s second largest city, the Mediterranean port of Alexandria.

Many Sunday churchgoers wept quietly in their pews, while others dabbed their eyes, put on a stiff upper lip and sang hymns in the ancient Coptic language. Fear and sorrow hung in the air.

"I am afraid for the future," said Malak Guirguis, a 17-year-old boy with a peach fuzz mustache who fought back tears after Sunday Mass. "I do not want to die here like these people did."

Egypt's interior ministry says Friday’s blast was the work of a suicide bomber possibly affiliated with al Qaeda, a potentially serious national-security development in a country that has long denied al Qaeda activity within its borders.

The sophistication of the attack and the large number of dead and wounded have also ratcheted up tensions in the often uneasy relationship between Egypt's Muslim majority and its Christian minority, which makes up roughly 10 percent of its population of 80 million. Nearly 1,000 people were packed inside the church at the time of the attack.

On Sunday, the church's outer walls remained splattered with blood, pockmarked by shrapnel and spotted with charred bits of human flesh.

After Mass on Sunday, the air of Saints Church was filled with the sounds of sobbing women and protesters shouting anti-government slogans and chanting “With our blood, with our soul, we sacrifice for you, O the Cross.”

As worshippers filed out of the chapel, they began to vent their rage to reporters and each other.

"Where is the government? There is no government for us!" shouted Hani Maurice, before being smacked and dragged away by church security eager to keep the scene under control. "The government belongs to us? Bullshit! The government is the daughter of a whore!"

In the hours following Friday's late-night blast, Alexandria Governor Adel Labib blamed al Qaeda. In a televised address to the nation Saturday, Egypt's ailing 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak said that "foreign elements" were responsible for the attack and called for national unity in the face of terror. He said Egypt would “cut off the head of the snake” and defeat those responsible for the blast.

In October an al Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq, killed 68 Christians in a Baghdad church bombing it said was done to punish the Coptic Church for forcibly holding two Christian women who converted to Islam, a charge the church denies.

The bomb went off outside the main gate of the church shortly past midnight on New Year's Eve as worshippers began to descend the heavy marble stairs from the chapel to the exit. Initial reports and eyewitness accounts suggest it was packed with homemade shrapnel to cause as much damage as possible.

Mohamed Abdu, a twentysomething Muslim man with a neatly trimmed beard, saw the bomb explode from down the street and rushed to help.

"I was picking up body parts with my bare hands, they fell from the sky," he says. "Legs and fingers, and there were screws and nails and pieces of wire everywhere."

If causing maximum damage was the goal, it appears to have been met. On Sunday, the church's outer walls remained splattered with blood, pockmarked by shrapnel and spotted with charred bits of human flesh. A large wooden crucifix draped in a white cloth smeared with the blood of blast victims leaned against its heavy metal gates. Inside a first-floor chapel, the floor was stained with the blood of victims whose bodies were dragged into the building.

Many in Alexandria, both Christian and Muslim, are angry that the government did not heed the warnings made by al Qaeda in Iraq. Police are rarely far away in a big Egyptian city, especially at religious sites, and many here say they should have done more to protect the church.

"The security didn't care and the rest of the government didn't care either," says Mohamed Ahmed, a 20-year-old Muslim from the neighborhood of Sidi Beshr, where Saints Church is located. "They are the ones who are really responsible for what happened here. The government should have known something like this could happen."

The bombing has astonished those in Egypt, which despite a history of Islamist violence in the 1990s is unused to the specter of suicide bombers and the language of soft targets.

"It's a shock because Muslims and Christians live in peace here, so you don't think anything like this could ever happen," says Mohamed Saman, who also lives in Sidi Beshr.

The blast comes one week before the celebration of Coptic Christmas on January 6, a holiday that was also marred by violence last year. A gunman opened fire on worshippers at a Christmas Mass in the southern Egyptian city of Naga Hammadi, killing six people and sparking three days of sectarian rioting. No conviction has yet been made in that case.

Nabil Abdel Fattah, director of the Ahram Center for Historical and Sociological Studies, says that whether the attack was committed by Egyptians or not, it would not have been possible without Egypt's increasingly sectarian environment to act as an incubator.

"If these terrorist acts were caused by al Qaeda or a group linked to it, they were also completely dependent upon the sectarian tensions and the sectarian mood of the people in Alexandria," he says. "Until now the government has been absent and not used any political tools to fight the root of the problem."

Liam Stack is a freelance journalist based in New York. He has reported from across the Middle East and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, McClatchy Newspapers, Foreign Policy magazine and others.