Fears of sectarian violence mount in Egypt

Christians prayed on Sunday at a church targeted by an apparent suicide bomber who killed 21 people as Egypt pointed the finger of blame at international "terrorism" and fears of sectarian violence mounted.

"With our soul and our blood we will redeem the Holy Cross," chanted the congregation as Copts gathered at the Al-Qiddissin church in Alexandria for Sunday mass a day after the bombing.

Blood stains from Saturday's attack were still visible on the facade of the church, where 21 people were killed early on New Year's Day and 79 wounded when an apparent suicide bomber blew himself up.

The attack sparked angry street protests in Alexandria and clashes between hundreds of Christian youths and police on Saturday.

There was no immediate claim but Al-Qaeda has called for punishment of Egypt's Copts over claims that two priests' wives they say had converted to Islam were being held by the Church against their will.

President Hosni Mubarak said the attack bore the hallmark of "foreign hands" and the interior ministry also blamed "foreign elements" -- euphemisms which point to Islamists militants such as Al-Qaeda loyalists.

Mubarak pledged in televised remarks on Saturday that he will "cut off the head of the snake, confront terrorism and defeat it" and urged Christians and Muslims to stand united in the face of a common enemy.

At least 5,000 people attended funerals late on Saturday for the victims at a monastery outside Alexandria, where crowds of mourners shouted slogans and refused to accept official condolences.

"No, no, no," the crowd shouted as a Church official tried to read out condolences from Mubarak.

The Church said in a statement that the attack "constituted a dangerous escalation in sectarian incidents against the Copts."

Government and independent newspapers in Cairo warned on Sunday that "civil war" could break out unless Christians and Muslims close ranks.

The papers also urged the government to give serious consideration to the plight of the Copts, who account for up to 10 percent of Egypt's 80-million population and often complain of discrimination.

"Someone wants to make this country explode... We must realise that there is a plot aimed at triggering religious civil war," the pro-government daily Rose el-Yussef said.

The independent paper Al-Shorouk said Christians had a right to be angry, but urged them not play into the game of "the instigators of (Saturday's) crime."

"If all goes as planned, criminal operations against Coptic targets and holy places will increase. Copts will clash with their Muslim neighbours and we will be stuck in marshlands like Lebanon was in April 1975," Al-Shorouk said of the 15-year Lebanese civil war unleashed that month.

Christian protesters on Sunday heckled police and showered them with stones as they shouted slogans against Mubarak's regime.

"O Mubarak, the heart of the Copts is on fire," protesters chanted as they darted in and out of side-streets around the bloodied church to shower police with stones. Police fired tear gas grenades at the demonstrators.

The independent daily Al-Masri Al-Yom urged the authorities to take the bull by the horns and look beyond the security implications of Saturday's bombing, including at the political, social and cultural aspects.
"We should not hide our heads in the sand. Some say that foreign hands are probably behind this crime. But we believe that if the national fabric is solid enough, no foreign faction could set the fire in our midst."
The attack drew international condemnation with Pope Benedict XVI leading the fray on Saturday urging world leaders to defend Christians against abuse while US President Barack Obama denounced "this barbaric and heinous act."

The World Council of Churches (WCC) condemned "the vicious attack" and called for "proactive engagement in dialogue and partnership between Christians and Muslims in Egypt."

Saturday's attack came two months after Al-Qaeda's Iraq affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed responsibility for a Baghdad church attack which it said was aimed to force the release of the women in Egypt.

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