x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Copts gather to worship at Egypt's fatal blast church

Congregation defy threats of further attacks to celebrate Christmas Eve at Al-Qiddissin church where a New Year's Day bomb killed 23 people.

Coptic Christian women gather for Christmas Eve Mass at Abassiya Cathedral in Cairo on Thursday night.
Coptic Christian women gather for Christmas Eve Mass at Abassiya Cathedral in Cairo on Thursday night.

ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT // Hundreds of Coptic Christians crossed the blood-stained pavement for their Christmas Eve Mass in the Al-Qiddissin church, where a suicide bomber had killed up to 23 churchgoers after a New Year's Day service.

Defying the threat of further attacks, they filled the pews and aisles before the service started on Thursday night. Hilmi Yacoub, who runs the church's community services, said the attendance was double the size of last year's number.

"We've left our homes without knowing if we'll return, but let dark terrorism know that we don't fear death," he said.

Before the service started, police officials said a church worker in the southern city of Minya discovered a can filled with firecrackers, nails and bolts at the foot of a church staircase.

The news circulated through text messages, but worshippers, many dressed in black, kept filing past the police cordons that closed off roads leading to the churches.

Father Bolous George comforted the crowd from his pulpit. "Trust that all things work together towards good for those that love God. What happened was a test of faith," he said.

Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7 and the police were determined yesterday to keep the peace throughout the country. They seemed successful as the day passed without incident.

Police, who had been criticised for failing to provide adequate security before the Alexandria bombing, took no chances this time. At least 70,000 officers and conscripts fanned out across the country to secure Coptic churches before the Mass.

There has been no credible claim of responsibility for the bombing, and the police investigation is now focusing on a reconstructed severed head found on the church's roof after the blast.

Police released on Thursday a sketch of the presumed bomber, a man in his twenties, in the hope the public might help identify him.

An interior ministry official said that investigators were also looking into lists of possible suspects who arrived in the country before the attack.

Copts, who make up about 10 per cent of Egypt's 80 million people, have previously been the targets of sectarian attacks and they complain of discrimination in the predominatly Muslim country.

But the Alexandria bombing was different. The sectarian violence that occasionally breaks out in Egypt is often caused by rumours of cross-faith relationships, conversions or land disputes. The government usually denies that they indicate a larger problem in the country's fragile sectarian balance.

The government's immediate response to the church bombing was to blame foreign involvement, as the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, did in a speech the day of the attack. A government official conceded there was little evidence to back up that assertion, but analysts who often dismiss such claims of foreign plots are inclined to consider the involvement of an al Qa'eda-inspired group in this bombing.

The bombing took place almost two months after an al Qa'eda- linked group in Iraq claimed a deadly attack on a Syriac Catholic church there, saying it wanted Egypt's Coptic church to release two Muslim converts it said the church was holding against their will after they converted to Islam. The claim, made on an al Qa'eda-linked website, was followed by a statement urging attacks against a list of Coptic churches, including the Qiddissin church.

In the wake of the Alexandria bombing, the government has stressed that the entire nation, not just Copts, was the target of the attack, downplaying underlying religious tensions. Mufid Shehab, the state minister for judicial and parliamentary affairs, refused to consider calls by senators this week to revise a law that prevents Copts from building churches without presidential permission, one of the sources of Coptic discontent.

"When we speak of the problems of the Copts, we should not link them to what happened in Alexandria," he said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

With additional reporting by Magdy Samaan in Alexandria