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After Bombing, Copts Worship and Worry

By-Abigail Hauslohner | 16 January 2011

Grief quickly transformed into anger on Sunday as a couple hundred Christians returned to the church in Alexandria that was bombed on New Year's Day. During the morning Mass, women sobbed against one another in the pews, while the priests chanted. Afterward, the attendees gathered in the lobby, screaming angrily about a government they say has repeatedly failed them. The bodies and tangled wreckage of cars had already been cleared from the street. But blood was still splattered across the outer walls of Saints Church and a mosque across the street. Parishioners crunched over broken glass as they made their way through a crime scene with the odor of a slaughterhouse. Hundreds of riot police stood by, blocking the ends of the street, but it was a protection the congregants say was absent when they needed it most.

Authorities say the powerful explosion was set off by a suicide bomber who had packed his arsenal with nails and ball bearings, which tore through a crowd of churchgoers as they exited midnight Mass. Egyptian officials painted the bombing as a brutal foreign assault, though they did not directly accuse al-Qaeda. Egypt has typically insisted that the international extremist group has no foothold in the country. 
But no one at Saints Church seemed to be buying those claims. Instead, many recalled on Sunday how the authorities failed to help them in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, as Christians stormed the mosque across the street and clashes broke out along sectarian lines, Christians vs. Muslims and then Christians vs. the police. "It wasn't just the car bomb. It was after the car bomb — the police just stood there and watched as Muslims and Christians attacked each other," said one parishioner, who gave his name as Abu Mark. Others said that when the police finally did get involved, they hit back at the Christians. Some even accused the authorities of collusion in the attack. "It was the church that they targeted, not the Egyptian people, as they are claiming on TV," said Girgis Abdel Malak, a congregation member. 
"If they were targeting Muslims and Christians, why did it explode at 12:30 at night on a holiday, right when people were leaving the church?" asked another member, Samia Malak. No one goes to the mosque at that time of night, she pointed out.
The incident comes as Christian communities across the Middle East are facing increasing threat. And the bombing is going to focus attention on Egypt's worsening sectarian tensions. Already, Coptic anger over the bombing has inspired solidarity protests in Cairo, and with them, violent clashes between Christians and security forces. Coptic Christians, who make up a tenth of Egypt's population, have long complained of government discrimination and neglect, while Muslims have accused the Coptic community, which is subject to slightly different rules and regulations, of preferential treatment and living outside the law. 
Almost exactly one year ago, a gunman massacred seven people in the town of Nag Hammadi, following a Christmas Mass. The parishioners of Saints Church say they see a clear continuum from earlier sectarian clashes to their own latest tragedy. "Discrimination against the Copts is a government policy, and that gets reflected in the behavior of the people," says Victor Murab, the church's rector. In an upstairs office on Sunday, church officials contemplated how the influence of a brand of puritanical Islam from Saudi Arabia has made Egypt a less tolerant place. "Al-Qaeda does not exist in Egypt in an organized sense," says Murab, "but it's here as an idea." 
Authorities on Sunday said they had arrested 17 people in connection with the attack, according to al-Jazeera. But some observers say that simply putting the perpetrators behind bars won't stop the sectarian divide from widening or growing more bitter. "The people they arrested for Nag Hammadi still haven't been convicted. It has been a year," says Fikry Gameel, a Christian who paints buildings. "I'm 80% sure this was al-Qaeda, but from inside Egypt. It was Muslims." 
Standing in the late-morning sunshine, on a street that glints with tiny shards of glass, Gameel isn't optimistic for Egypt's Christian minority. "There was this car bomb, but I think there are more out there," he says to his friends, who nod their heads in angry concurrence. "The rest are coming."
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TIME Magazine (abridged)
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