Reporting from Cairo — At least 21 people attending a Christian Mass were killed and 79 injured when a bomb exploded outside an Alexandria church in the first hour of the New Year, Egyptian officials said.
The blast struck Coptic worshipers as they exited the Qidiseen, or saints, church just after a New Year's Eve Mass in the eastern section of Alexandria, the ancient city along Egypt's Mediterranean coast.
According to the Ministry of Health, all but eight of the injured and all the fatalities were Christians. No one claimed immediate responsibility for the attack. The Ministry of Information quoted an unnamed official as saying a suicide bomber may have carried out the attack and "foreign terrorists" were responsible.
The bombing sparked street clashes between police and angry Copts, who reacted by hurling stones, storming a nearby mosque and throwing some of its books out in the street. Security forces cordoned the scene and used tear gas to disperse the crowd. An eyewitness told the state-run newspaper Al Ahram that a priest calmed the angry Copts and urged them to stay inside the church.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak condemned the attack as a "criminal terrorist act" and called on the Christians and Muslims "to close ranks and confront the forces of terrorism and those who want to undermine the security, stability and unity" of the country, the official MENA news agency reported.
The bombing transformed a joyous New Year celebration into a grim reminder of the country's religious strife.
An eyewitness told Al Ahram that the massive explosion rocked the church.
"It was about 15 minutes after midnight when we heard the sound of the explosion. We came out of the church to find two cars on fire," said Sami Saad, who was inside the church at the time of the explosion. "Everyone was frightened and people were screaming after we saw scattered parts of the dead bodies mixing with blood to cover the ground."
While many described it as another in a series of episodes of sectarian violence, Alexandria's governor said Al Qaeda could be behind the bombing.
"There have been recent threats of Al Qaeda attacks on Egyptian churches," Gov. Adel Labib told Egyptian television.
Sectarian violence has become chronic in recent years in Egypt. Three Muslims are on trial for the killing of six Copts and a Muslim outside a church in the southern Egyptian city of Nagaa Hammadi a year ago, an incident that prompted riots by thousands of enraged Copts.
Conflicts are often the result of conversions by Muslims to Christianity and vice versa. Hundreds of Muslims have recently protested the alleged imprisonment by priests of two Christian women who converted to Islam.
With about 10% of the country's population, Copts are Egypt's largest religious minority and make up the largest Christian community in the Middle East.
Hassan is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Beirut contributed to this report.