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.
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who appeared on state TV hours after the blast, was seemingly sensitive to Coptic accusations. After vowing to “cut off the hands of terrorists and those plotting against Egypt’s security,” Mubarak characterized that attack as one which targeted “all Egypt,” adding that “terrorism does not distinguish between Copt and Muslim.” Other Muslim leaders expressed both sympathy and solidarity with the victims, and both Muslims and Christians held solidarity marches in both Alexandria and Cairo. Yet Archbishop Raweis, the top Coptic cleric in Alexandria, denounced what he considered an inadequate level of security. “There were only three soldiers and an officer in front of the church. Why did they have so little security at such a sensitive time when there’s so many threats coming from al-Qaeda?” he asked.
Coptic Christians comprise about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 79 million. The original Coptic Orthodox Church was founded in Alexandria by Mark, one of Jesus’ apostles, in the first century. Six centuries later, Arabs conquered Egypt, and Islam evolved into the country’s dominant religion. Yet for many years, the city of Alexandria had been a mix of Christians, Muslims and foreigners. In the last decade, it has become a stronghold for Muslim hard-liners. The worst violence prior to this attack occurred in 2006 when stabbings at three churches in the city unleashed three days of Muslim-Christian rioting in which four people were killed.
Police detained 17 people in connection with the atrocity, according to Al Jazeera, but according to Reuters, ten of them have already been released. Hours after the blast, Pope Benedict announced he will host a summit of world religious leaders in Assisi next October to discuss how to better promote peace among the world’s different faiths. ”Humanity … cannot be allowed to become accustomed to discrimination, injustices and religious intolerance, which today strike Christians in a particular way,” the Pontiff said in his New Year’s Day homily. ”Once again, I make a pressing appeal [to Christians in troubled areas] not to give in to discouragement and resignation,” he added.
Hosni Mubarak, 81, who has ruled Egypt for 25 years, is running for re-election in 2011, with the possibility of Mohamed ElBaradei, 67-year-old former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, running against him. The move may be intended to make it difficult for Mubarak to pass power on to his son, Gamal. It would be only the second multi-candidate presidential election in the history of the country, but critics of the regime are not hopeful. They considered the first election in 2005 to be a sham. ”If anything, 2005 was the high point in our political experience and we have been going downhill since then,” said Ghada Shahbender, who co-founded election watchdog Shayfeencom. Other Egyptians worry that the country may fall prey to a coup by the Muslim Brotherhood, in which case the fragile peace between Israel and Egypt would likely be shattered.
Attacks such as the one in Alexandria are clearly part of an overall strategy by Islamic terrorists to keep sectarian violence in Egypt boiling. It is worth remembering that al Qaeda in Iraq blew up the golden dome of the al-Askari Mosque in 2006, with the intention of starting a civil war in that country. If Egypt is indeed the victim of “foreign elements” in this latest atrocity, Islamic terrorists are undoubtedly trying to repeat history at a time when an aging Mubarak may be at his most vulnerable. A fragile economic recovery in America is also vulnerable, as any widespread violence in the Middle East is likely to drive up already-surging oil prices. On the face of it, Christians were the obvious target in Alexandria.
What’s going on beneath the surface may be much more sinister and far-reaching.
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