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Egyptian Christians' Christmas celebration clouded by New Year's Day bomb attack

Celebrations go on as scheduled despite grief and anger over the Jan. 1 bombing at a Coptic church in Alexandria.

January 07, 2011|By Amro Hassan, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Cairo — Egypt's Christians celebrated Eastern Orthodox Christmas Eve on Thursday despite their mourning and anger over a New Year's Day bomb attack on a church that killed 25 Copts, and the fear of more violence.

Rumors had spread that Coptic Pope Shenouda III would cancel this year's Christmas festivities. But despite Copts' grief over the deaths in the Alexandria bombing, the 87-year-old pope said celebrations would go on as scheduled.

"Of course we feel sadness, and the bombings will leave their mark on all Copts," said Mina Emil, a Coptic banker. "But we will not allow this to overshadow our celebrations."

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack on All Saints Church in the coastal city, which also injured dozens of people. But a statement published by a group calling itself Shabakat al Mujahedin al Elektroniya, or the Holy Warriors Electronic Network, endorsed the attack, saying that it wouldn't be the last against Copts in Egypt.

Adding to the tension, a video attributed to Al Qaeda, called the "Jihadi Encyclopedia for the Destruction of the Cross," featured a line calling on Muslims in Egypt to "blow up churches while Copts are celebrating Christmas or any other time when churches are packed." It was widely circulated on the Internet.

Egypt's Interior Ministry deployed armored vehicles, bomb-sniffing dogs, metal detectors and thousands of police officers to protect churches around the clock. Mosques would also be closely watched before and after Friday prayers for signs of trouble, the ministry said.

Some Copts were heartened by the show of force.

"Security officers are doing a very good job and everyone is doing his best to guard the church from any possible threat," said Joseph Nabil, a Copt who stood outside a church in the Shubra neighborhood of Cairo.

Many Copts said they were determined not to let fear of further attacks ruin their Christmas.

"We have to be realistic," Emil said. "No one can stop a suicide bomber from killing Copts, even if the whole world comes together to protect our churches."

The investigation of the New Year's Day bombing continued. After the attack, President Hosni Mubarak rushed to blame "foreign hands" aiming to unsettle the country's security by triggering religious strife. Authorities have yet to provide evidence of such a plot.

The Interior Ministry said the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber, and it has released a sketch by forensic artists depicting the face of the man believed to have set off the blast.

But Egypt's prosecutor general issued a statement Thursday saying that investigations had yet to reach a solid conclusion on who was behind the blast or even how exactly it was carried out.

The bombing in Alexandria came a month after Al Qaeda's Iraqi wing threatened to assault Coptic targets in Egypt unless two priests' wives, who allegedly were locked up in a southern monastery after converting to Islam, were released.

The deadly explosion prompted riots and demonstrations throughout Egypt, mainly by angry Copts who believe that Egyptian authorities have not worked hard enough to protect them from growing hatred among some Muslims. Many secular and moderate Muslims also accuse the government of systematically oppressing and marginalizing Christians in Egypt.

Copts make up about 10% of Egypt's population of more than 80 million. Despite the government's claims that Christians enjoy equality with Muslims, Copts complain of difficulties in obtaining permission to build or refurbish churches, a lack of representation in the upper ranks of the civil service and an inability to convert others to Christianity.

Pope Shenouda on Monday called on the Egyptian government to "start addressing Copts' problems," which he said lay at the core of the religious animosities.

Hassan is a news assistant in The Times' Cairo Bureau. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Beirut contributed to this report.

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