Pope calls on world leaders to defend Christians after church bloodbath
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A car bomb killed 21 people and wounded 79 in Alexandria early on Saturday. The New Year’s Day attack hit the Al-Qiddissin (The Saints) church shortly after midnight. Pope Benedict XVI has urged world leaders to protect Christians against “discrimination, abuse and religious intolerance”.
The explosives-packed car blew up at 12:30am local time just as church-goers began leaving after an evening service.
“If the bishop had finished saying mass two minutes earlier, the bloodbath would have been worse,” Nermin Nabil, a survivor of the attack, told the AFP news agency. There were hundreds of people inside the building.
It was the first car bomb attack to hit a church in Egypt and comes after the Egyptian Christian community was threatened by Al-Qaeda.
"Al-Qaeda threatened all the churches in Egypt 10 days ago," said Cairo correspondent Alexandre Buccianti. "Al-Qaeda wants the Coptic Church to free, according to them, two Christians that converted to Islam and who are detained in the desert by the church," he added.
Pope Benedict appealed for a "concrete and constant engagement of leaders of nations" in what he described as a "difficult mission".
“I once again launch a pressing appeal not to give in to discouragement and resignation,” he said.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called on the “children of Egypt – Coptic and Muslims – to close ranks and confront the forces of terrorism and those who want to undermine security, stability and unity of the children of this nation,” according to the state-run Mena news agency.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. However police investigators combed the area for clues. An interior ministry official told the AFP news agency that a suicide bomber was “probably” responsible for the attack.
The outside of the church was littered with bloodied clothing while blood stains were splattered inside the church and on a nearby outpatient clinic. The bomb had been packed with pieces of metal to cause the maximum amount of harm.
"Alexandria has always been a tense city because our Muslim brothers hold a lot of sway. You can feel the tension as soon as you set foot in the city," Rafiq Greiche, spokesperson for the Catholic Church in Egypt, told RFI.
"We’re afraid civil war could break out. We’ve had to put surveillance cameras around the church. We do this against our will because a church should not be a fortress. It should be an open place for everyone," he added.
Later in the morning Christians protested outside the church. They shouted “where is the government” and “with our soul and our blood we will redeem the Holy Cross”. They were met by riot police who sealed off the area to outsiders.
"They are very, very angry. It’s the first time I’ve seen such anger," said Buccianti. "Now they are demanding that real measures be taken. For example they are demanding that the terrorists responsible for this attack must be tried in front of a military tribunal," he said.
Buccianti said Muslims are condemning the attack.
"The mosque of Al-Azhar very strongly condemned the attack and said in fact a Muslim, one of his duties is to defend the churches, because if he doesn’t do so he’s not a good Muslim," he said.
Coptic Christians account for 10 per cent of Egypt’s 80-million population. The Al-Qiddissin church is located in the Sidi Bechr district of Alexandria, which was the scene of clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians about two years ago.