At least 21 people were killed early Saturday in a New Year's day car bomb attack on a church in Alexandria, hitting Egypt's Christian community, the biggest in the Middle East, a health ministry official told AFP.
"The number of dead has risen to 21," Ussama Abdel Moneim said, adding that eight people were wounded in the attack. An earlier toll from the interior ministry said seven people had been killed and 24 wounded, which prompted hundreds of Christians to take to the streets in protest. Some Christians and Muslims pelted each other with rocks, a witness said. Cars were torched.
The unclaimed attack came as the faithful left the al-Qiddissine (the Saints) church in the Sidi Bechr district of the northern city at around half past midnight.
A witness told private television channel On-TV that he had seen a green Skoda car pull up outside the church shortly after midnight. Men got out and the explosion took place almost immediately after.
Tight security on election
Egypt, due to hold a presidential election in September, had also stepped up security around churches, restricting cars from parking directly outside them, after an al Qaeda-linked group in Iraq issued a threat against the church in Egypt in November.
While it was not immediately known who was responsible for the blast, a group calling itself Al-Qaeda in Iraq had threatened the Egyptian Coptic Christians.
The bombing came almost two months to the day after an October 31 attack by militants on Our Lady of Salvation church in central Baghdad, which left the 44 worshippers, two priests and seven security forces members dead.
Al-Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate claimed responsibility for the attack and made new threats against Christians.
The group threatened to attack Egyptian Copts if their church did not free two Christians it said had been "imprisoned in their monasteries" for having converted to Islam.
The two women were Camilia Chehata and Wafa Constantine, the wives of Coptic priests whose claimed conversion caused a stir in Egypt.
Protection around Copt places of worship was discreetly stepped up after the threats, as President Hosni Mubarak said he was committed to protecting the Christians "faced with the forces of terrorism and extremism".
The Copts, the biggest Christian community in the Middle East and who account for up to 10 percent of Egypt's 80-million population, often complain of discrimination and have been the target of sectarian attacks.
"This is a scene from Baghdad," a witness told Reuters by telephone.
Police used teargas to disperse the crowd on the streets. Ambulances were also at the scene where medical personnel gathered body parts that were scattered over the area.
"We sacrifice our souls and blood for the cross," shouted protesting Christians near the Coptic Orthodox church where the blast struck, a witness said.
A statement from the Interior Ministry said the blast occurred just after midnight in front of the church after a service to mark the New Year. It said the blast damaged a mosque near the church and eight Muslims were among the 24 wounded.
Security sources said nine people were killed.
The ministry said an investigation had begun.
"The preliminary investigation indicates that a car was the reason behind the explosion. It was parked in front of the church and had been assumed to belong to one of the people who often come to the church," said the ministry statement, which was read to Reuters by a ministry official.
Kameel Sadeeq, from the Coptic council in Alexandria, told Reuters: "People went in to church to pray to God but ended up as scattered limbs. This massacre has al-Qaeda written all over, the same pattern Qaeda has adopted in other countries."
Rights groups say the number of violent sectarian incidents have been rising in Egypt.
Previous deadly riots
In November, hundreds of Christians clashed with riot police, as well as some Muslims who joined in, during a protest over a decision to halt construction of a church. Officials said the church did not have a license to be built.
Two Christians died as a result of those clashes and dozens were hurt, medical sources said. More than 150 were detained.
Analysts say the state must address grievances such as those over laws making it easier to build a mosque than a church if it wants to stem such sectarian violence.
Officials are swift to play down sectarian differences and are particularly sensitive to emphasize national harmony after a a parliamentary election in November that opposition groups said was rigged and before the presidential poll.
President Hosni Mubarak, 82 and in power since 1981, is expected to run again, if he is able. Gallbladder surgery last March rekindle questions about his health, although he has returned to a full schedule.
Mubarak urges for unity
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak urged Christians and Muslims to close ranks and confront "terrorism" after a New Year's day car bomb attack on a church Saturday killed 21 people.
"President Hosni Mubarak has been following up on the criminal terrorist act from the moment it occurred and throughout the night and until dawn today," the state-run MENA news agency reported.
Mubarak "calls on children of Egypt -- Copts and Muslims -- to close ranks and confront the forces of terrorism and those who want to undermine the security, stability and unity of the children of this nation," MENA said.
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