In Alexandria, Egypt, Islamic jihadists carried out a New Year’s day terrorist attack at a Christian church one minute after midnight. 21 people were killed and 97 were wounded by the blast, which authorities are “likely” attributing to “a suicide bomber who died among others.” It was initially believed the bomb had been contained in a car parked outside the Coptic orthodox al-Qidiseen church, but further investigation by the interior ministry revealed that none of the vehicles were the source of the blast. “It has been confirmed that the epicenter of the blast wasn’t in one of the cars or the road,” the ministry said. The ministry was equally clear that source of the attack “clearly indicates that foreign elements undertook planning and execution.” How they arrived at that conclusion remains unclear.
A terrorist group calling itself The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an al Qaeda-linked group, is one of the prime suspects in the atrocity. This was the group which claimed responsibility for a similar attack in Baghdad in November, where terrorists armed with explosives stormed a Syrian church, took 120 people hostage, and killed 68 of them when Iraqi security forces attempted to break the siege. Egyptian authorities revealed that the al-Qidiseen church had been threatened by the ISI, which it claimed was holding two Christian women against their will. The women, who had allegedly converted to Islam in order to get divorces prohibited by the Coptic Church, are reportedly being held in seclusion. Muslim hard-liners characterize that detainment as “imprisonment,” a charge the church denies. In response to those threats, security had been ramped up at churches around the country, with authorities banning cars from parking outside them as a precaution.
Early Saturday morning, such security proved to be inadequate. “I was inside the church and heard a huge explosion,” said Father Mena Adel, a priest. “People’s bodies were in flames.” “The last thing I heard was a powerful explosion and then my ears went deaf,” said 17 year-old survivor Marco Boutros, interviewed at his hospital bed. “All I could see were body parts scattered all over–legs and bits of flesh.”
Soon after the blast, hundreds of Christians took to the streets in protest chanting, “With our blood and soul, we redeem the cross,” according to witnesses. Some of the demonstrators broke into a nearby mosque, which ignited a stone- and bottle-tossing exchange with Muslims, according to an Associated Press photographer. Egyptian police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the mob.
Tensions between Muslims and Orthodox Copts have reportedly been growing in Egypt in recent years, with Copts complaining about discrimination as well as a “rising tide of Islamic extremism and anti-Christian sentiment.” They claim the Egyptian government characterizes the unrest as the work of lone individuals or mentally unstable people in order to avoid admitting the problem is widespread, a description which could anger the Muslim majority. Last November, after police violently halted the construction of a church in Cairo, Christians rioted, smashing cars and windows, leaving one person dead. Such violent displays of anger by Christians are rare in Egypt.