ALEXANDRIA // The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, blamed “foreign hands” after a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a Coptic church in Egypt yesterday, killing 21 people and wounding 79 others.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but al Qa’eda has called for punishment of Egypt’s Copts over claims that two priests’ wives they said had converted to Islam were being held by the church against their will.
The bombing in Alexandria sparked anger among Christians, who clashed with police and shouted slogans against the regime of the ageing president.
A health ministry official said 21 people were killed and 79 wounded, and the interior ministry said eight of those hurt were Muslims.
Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE, yesterday sent his condolences to Mr Mubarak. In a statement made to WAM, the state news agency, he said the Emirates “strongly condemned” the terrorist act and would “stand by Egypt in these difficult times”.
A witness had told private television On-TV he saw a car park outside the Al Qiddissin (The Saints) church after midnight, two men get out and the explosion happen almost immediately afterwards.
But the interior ministry ruled out the hypotheses of a car bomb, saying it was “probable that the bomb ... was carried by a suicide bomber who died among the crowd”. The device was packed with pieces of metal to cause the maximum harm, the ministry added.
The circumstances of the explosion “given the methods that currently prevail in terrorist activities at the global and regional level, clearly indicate” that the bombing was “planned and carried out by foreign elements”.
Mr Mubarak echoed the claim, saying the bombing bore the hallmark “of foreign hands”.
In televised remarks, he referred to it as something that “is alien to us” and pledged to “cut off the head of the snake, confront terrorism and defeat it”.
“All of Egypt is targeted. This blind terrorism does not differentiate between Copts and Muslims,” he said, urging people from both faiths to unite.
“You are terribly mistaken if you believe that you can hide from the punishment of the Egyptian people,” he added, addressing the still-unknown assailants.
Nearly 1,000 Christians were attending the New Year’s Mass, said Father Mena Adel, a priest who attended. The service had just ended, and worshippers were leaving the building when the bomb went off about a half-hour after midnight, he said.
“The last thing I heard was a powerful explosion and then my ears went deaf,” Marco Boutros, a 17-year-old survivor, said from his hospital bed. “All I could see were body parts scattered all over – legs and bits of flesh.”
Bodies of many of the dead were collected from the street and kept inside the church overnight before they were taken away by ambulances for burial amid scenes of grief and anger.
Archbishop Arweis, the top Coptic cleric in Alexandria, said police want to blame a suicide bomber instead of a car bomb so they can write it off as a lone attacker. He denounced what he called a lack of protection.
“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 Qa’eda?” he said, speaking to the Associated Press.
Refaa al Tahtawi, spokesman for Al Azhar, Sunni Islam’s Cairo-based main institution of learning, denounced the attack and appealed for calm, as did a senior Coptic official, but to no avail.
Some 15 hours after the bombing, growing numbers of Christians were continuing to vent their anger.
By mid-afternoon, hundreds of youths in small groups in the neighbourhood of the church were showering rocks and bottles on police, who responded with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets.
“O Mubarak, the heart of the Copts is on fire,” they shouted as they darted in and out of side streets to heckle police.
Others unfurled their fury at the “cowardly terrorists” and chanted: “The blood of the Copts is not cheap.”
The attack comes two months after gunmen stormed a Baghdad cathedral in an operation that left 44 worshippers, two priests and seven security forces dead.
That was claimed by al Qa’eda’s Iraq affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, which said its purpose was to force the release of the two women in Egypt.
After those threats, protection around Coptic places of worship was discreetly stepped up.
The Copts account for up to 10 per cent of Egypt’s 80-million population, and often complain of discrimination and have been the target of sectarian attacks.
Pope Benedict XVI, during New Year’s mass, urged world leaders to defend Christians against abuse and intolerance.
“I once again launch a pressing appeal not to give in to discouragement and resignation,” said the pontiff.
With additional reporting from the Associated Press