By Hamza Hendawi and Maggie Michael / AP
ALEXANDRIA: Egyptian police are focusing their investigation into the New Year’s suicide bombing of a church on a group of Islamic hard-liners inspired by Al-Qaeda and based in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria where the attack killed 21 people, security officials said Sunday.
The bombing touched off riots and protests by Egypt’s Christian minority, who feel they are targeted and discriminated against and do not get adequate protection from authorities. There were signs of beefed up security outside churches nationwide and dozens returned to pray Sunday in the bombed, blood-spattered Saints Church — many of them sobbing, screaming in anger and slapping themselves in grief.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack on Coptic Christians leaving a midnight Mass about a half hour into the new year Saturday, the worst attack on Egyptian Christians in a decade. In the immediate aftermath, President Hosni Mubarak blamed foreigners and the Alexandria governor accused Al-Qaeda, pointing to threats against Christians by the terror network’s branch in Iraq.
But on Sunday, security officials said police are looking at the possibility that homegrown Islamic extremists were behind it, and perhaps were inspired by Al-Qaeda though not directly under foreign command.
Investigators were also examining lists of air passengers who arrived recently in Egypt from Iraq because Al-Qaeda in Iraq threatened Christians in both countries. They said they are looking for any evidence of an Al-Qaeda financier or organizer who may have visited Egypt to recruit the bomber and his support team from local militants.
Investigators were also examining two heads found at the site on suspicion that at least one was the bomber’s, state news agency MENA reported. The crime lab investigation found the explosives used were locally made and were filled with nails and ball bearings to maximize the number of casualties.
Egypt’s government has long insisted that Al-Qaeda does not have a significant presence in the country, and it has never been conclusively linked to any attacks here.
Egypt does, however, have a rising movement of Islamic hard-liners, known as Salafis, who have a large and active presence in Alexandria. There have been fears they could be further radicalized by sectarian tensions.
The security officials cautioned, however, that the attackers may not necessarily have come from the ranks of the Salafis but more likely came from one of a number of small, fringe groups that are even more radical.
Alexandria, a famed city of antiquity which a century ago was home to a mix of Muslims, Christians, Jews and foreigners, has become a stronghold for Islamic hard-liners in the past decade. Stabbings at three Alexandria churches in 2006 sparked three days of Muslim-Christian riots that left at least four dead.
The security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation has not yet been completed, also said 25 people have been detained for questioning, but none of them was thought to be linked to the attack. They said the 25 were mostly owners of cars parked outside the church at the time, storekeepers and Muslim neighbors known to be Islamic fundamentalists.
Suspicion for the attack immediately fell on Al-Qaeda after the terror group’s branch in Iraq vowed to attack Christians in Iraq and Egypt over the cases of two Egyptian Christian women who sought to convert to Islam. The women, who were married to priests in the Coptic Orthodox Church, were prohibited from divorcing their husbands and sought to convert as a way out.
The women have since been secluded by the Coptic Church, prompting Islamic hard-liners in Egypt to accuse the Church of imprisoning them and forcing them to renounce Islam. The Church denies the allegation.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq cited the Egyptian women in a claim of responsibility for the attack on a Baghdad church in October that killed 68 people. The group has also threatened Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Christian community over the two cases and the church attacked was an Orthodox Coptic church.
The attack was dramatically different from past violence against Christians, which included shootings but not serious bombings, much less suicide attacks. Christians, mainly Orthodox Copts, make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s mainly Muslim population of nearly 80 million.
The attack only served to heighten tensions that have been growing in recent years between Christians and Muslims. Those tensions were on display in the center of the capital Cairo on Sunday, where about 2,000 riot police were deployed outside the city’s landmark TV and radio building as scores of protesters carrying large wooden crosses marched nearby but never made it to the building.
Christians staged demonstrations in at least three cities to protest what they see as the government’s failure to protect their community, but police moved quickly to break up the gatherings.
In Alexandria, about 500 Christians staged a noisy protest near the bombed church. Riot police outnumbered them by at least two to one and prevented them from moving elsewhere. Police arrested and beat up three demonstrators, according to witnesses.
“We are not going to remain silent,” chanted the protesters.
There were several small and tightly guarded demonstrations in Cairo.
Aida Seif El-Dawla, a veteran activist at one of them, called for the interior minister to be held accountable for the failure to protect the church.
Sally Moore, another Christian protester, said Muslim and Coptic protesters are planning to form a “human shield” outside major churches in Cairo on Coptic Christmas Eve on Jan. 6 in a show of solidarity.
“The security is protecting the regime, not the people, not the churches,” she said.
Inside the Saints Church, the floor was still stained with blood, two statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary were toppled and benches were scattered by the impact of the blast. A wooden cross hanging on the church gate was covered with a white sheet stained with victims’ blood and bits of human flesh remained stuck on the gate. Young Christian men prevented cleaners from removing the flesh.
“Leave them. This is pure blood,” one of the men shouted.
Father Maqar, who led the service, did not give a sermon, preferring to express his grief with silence.
“I tell Christians to pray and pray to ease their agony,” he told The Associated Press after the service.
In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI said the attack “offends God and all of humanity.”
Egypt’s top Muslim cleric, Grand Sheik of Al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb, visited Pope Shenouda III, spiritual leader of Egypt’s Orthodox Copts, at his Cairo headquarters on Sunday to offer his condolences. Several dozen Christian demonstrators tried to block his car as he was leaving but were prevented by security guards.
Pope Shenouda urged the state to quickly bring the culprits to justice, warning that failure to do so will lead to more “frustration.” –Hendawi reported from Cairo.