Violence fears mount; worshippers return to bombed Egyptian church

Dozens of grieving Christians returned to pray Sunday in a blood-spattered church where 21 worshippers were killed in a suicide bombing, many of them sobbing, screaming in anger and slapping themselves in grief. President Hosni Mubarak said he was receiving new reports about the incident and expressed confidence that security forces would be able to track down the perpetrators soon. Bloodstains from Saturday’s attack were still visible on the facade of the church where 21 people were killed early on New Year’s Day and 79 were wounded when an apparent suicide bomber blew himself up. Inside the church, the floor was still stained with blood, two statues were toppled and benches were scattered by the impact of the blast. A red foam sign that read “2011” on the church’s door was torn apart. 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.

Meanwhile, police have intensified security at churches across the country to prevent new attacks. At some churches police were checking identities of individuals before allowing them to enter. An injured victim said from his hospital that he had seen a 20-year-old man wearing a black jacket standing near a car in the middle of Khaleel Hamada Street between the church and the mosque. “The bomb went off within five minutes,” he said. Eid Abdudhahir, a government employee living in a building near the church, said he had seen a green Skoda car with plate No. CYG 5149 parking in front of the church, adding that the blast came from the car. He said the individuals inside the car had got down from it minutes before the blast. “It is not clear whether they had kept the explosives inside the car or in a bag near the car,” Abudhahir said. According to another witness, one of the individuals who came out of the car was wearing an explosive belt while another said he had seen three people running away from the green car just before the blast. “We spend every holiday in grief,” said Sohair Fawzy, a woman who attended the Mass Sunday and who lost two sisters and a niece in the attack.

At least 5,000 people attended funerals late on Saturday for the victims at a monastery outside Alexandria, where crowds of mourners shouted slogans and refused to accept official condolences. “No, no, no,” the crowd shouted as a Church official tried to read out condolences from Mubarak. Government and independent newspapers in Cairo warned on Sunday that “civil war” could break out unless Christians and Muslims close ranks. The papers also urged the government to give serious consideration to the plight of the Copts, who account for up to 10 percent of Egypt’s 80-million population and often complain of discrimination. “Someone wants to make this country explode… We must realize that there is a plot aimed at triggering religious civil war,” the pro-government daily Rose El-Yussef said. The independent paper Al-Shorouk said Christians had a right to be angry, but urged them not to play the game of “the instigators of (Saturday’s) crime.” “If all goes as planned, criminal operations against Coptic targets and holy places will increase. Copts will clash with their Muslim neighbors and we will be stuck in marshlands like Lebanon was in April 1975,” Al-Shorouk said of the 15-year Lebanese civil war unleashed that month.

Security officials 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 fundamentalists. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation. After militants attacked a Baghdad church in October and killed 68 people, Al-Qaeda in Iraq threatened more attacks and linked the violence to two Egyptian Christian women who sought to convert to Islam after the Coptic Orthodox Church prohibited them from divorcing their husbands who were priests in the church. The two women have since been secluded by the Church, prompting hard-liners in Egypt to accuse the Church of imprisoning the women and forcing them to renounce Islam, a claim the Church denies. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has also threatened Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Christian community over the two cases. The bombing was dramatically different from past attacks on Christians, which included shootings but not serious bombings, much less suicide attacks. – Arabnews