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Christians fear more violence after fatal bomb attack in Alexandria

06 January 2011

by Gerald ButtMiddle East Correspondent

Bloody image: Egyptian Copts hold up a blood-spattered banner, after morning mass at Two Saints’ Church, Alexandria, on Sunday AP

Bloody image: Egyptian Copts hold up a blood-spattered banner, after morning mass at Two Saints’ Church, Alexandria, on Sunday AP

THE Christmas and New Year holidays in the Middle East were overshadowed for Christians by more violence directed at their communities in Egypt and Iraq.

In the most serious single in­cident, 23 Copts were killed in a bomb attack on the Two Saints’ Church in Alexandria during mid­night mass on New Year’s Eve. More than 80 people were wounded, both in the church and in a neighbouring mosque that was also damaged by the explosion.

Over the next four days, riots occurred in predominantly Coptic neighbourhoods of Alexandria and Cairo in protest at the failure of the government to afford better pro­tection to Christians.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Benedict XVI led the con­demnation by religious leaders of the Alexandria attack. Dr Williams said the bombing was “yet another dreadful reminder of the pressure that Christian minorities are under in the Middle East, echoing the atrocities we have seen in recent weeks. The Coptic community and other Christian groups in Egypt can be sure of our deep sorrow at this terrible event.”

Pope Benedict said that he was “deeply shocked and saddened” by the news from Alexandria. “We express our closeness to the Coptic community . . . and stress our deep desire for peace and security for all the Egyptian people.”

The World Council of Churches called on religious and national leaders to “support the people in Egypt as they affirm life and engage in countering negative trends through peaceful means, such as proactive engagement in dialogue and partnership between Christians and Muslims in Egypt and through­out the world.”

The C-1 World Dialogue initia­tive condemned the attack in Alex­andria, saying that “this act of terrorism was an affront to all Egyptians.” The Director of the Awareness Foundation in London, the Revd Nadim Nassar, said that Christians, Jews, and Muslims “must unite in condemnation of such killing, and act together to pursue peace with justice for all”.

The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr Ali Gomaa, said: “Such barbarism needs to be denounced in the strongest of terms, and opposed at every turn.” The Federation of Muslim Organ­isations in Britain condemned in “the strongest and most absolute terms the shocking acts of violence and carnage”.

Extra security measures were in­troduced for churches, before Coptic celebrations began on Christmas Eve. But Copts, who represent ten per cent of the Egyptian population, insist that more should be done to protect them and end their margin­al­isation — hence the protest

riots in Alexandria and Cairo. The head of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda III, has called for calm. “There are many demands, but this is not the way to ask for them.”

The US State Department’s an­nual report on international reli­gious freedom said that Christians in Egypt face discrimination, “es­pecially in government employment and their ability to build, renovate, and repair places of worship”.

Christian and Muslim leaders in Egypt have made joint calls for dia­logue. But the Alexandrian bombing has brought mutual distrust to the surface, and has drawn international attention to the Egyptian author­ities. The imam of al-Azhar mosque, Ahmed al-Tayeb, the country’s most senior Muslim cleric, went so far as to criticise Pope Benedict’s call for world leaders to defend Christians as “unacceptable interference”.

In the wake of the Alexandrian bombing, more Coptic families announced their intention to leave Egypt, in the same way that Iraqi Christians are fleeing from their country. Over Christmas and New Year there were further attacks on Christians; in Baghdad and else­where.

Last Thursday, a bomb exploded in the al-Ghadir district of Baghdad, killing two Christians. On Monday, gunmen broke into the home of a Christian woman in the city, and shot her dead. The victim had sur­vived the siege at a church in Baghdad in late October, in which more than 50 people were killed.

The Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, headed by Canon Andrew White, of St George’s, Baghdad, is arranging a four-day “crisis summit” of Iraqi religious leaders in Copenhagen, beginning next Tuesday. Some of the most influential religious figures in Iraq are expected to attend.

Canon White said that the nego­tiations would be “difficult and delicate. These men have significant enmity towards each other, yet, because of the trust we have built up, they are willing to meet. If they can work together they have the power to bring peace. If not, things will only get worse.”

Coptic churches on alert. Coptic churches in Europe are on high alert after the New Year’s Eve attack on Two Saints’, a church that appeared in a list on an Islamist website. Six­teen other Coptic churches across Europe, including four in France and three each in England and Germany, are listed on the same website.

The General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Britain, Bishop Angaelos, said that they had been in touch with the police, and had made them aware of the threats on the website.

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