Seven dead, 24 injured in attack on church in Egypt

CAIRO (AFP) – At least seven people died and 24 were injured 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.

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.

Egyptians inspect a car bomb following an attack on a Christian church in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria on January 1, 2011. AFP

"The hospitals have taken in seven deceased and 24 injured persons, eight of them Muslims," the interior ministry said in a statement, adding that the church and a nearby mosque had suffered damage.

The ministry said the car that had exploded was parked in front of the church. An inquiry has been opened by the prosecutor's office.

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.

Witnesses said numerous ambulances were at the scene.

A security services source said dozens of angry Christians were demonstrating in front of a nearby mosque, arguing with police. The door and windows of the mosque had been damaged by the demonstrators.

Police and troops were deployed en masse around the scene of the explosion.

Refaa al-Tahtawi, spokesman for al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's main institution based in Cairo, appeared on television to denounce the attack which he said targeted "Egyptian national unity" and to appeal to Christians and Muslims for calm.

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.

In 2006 a man attacked worshippers in three churches in Alexandria, killing one person and wounding others. Authorities said at the time he had "psychiatric problems" but this was rejected by the Coptic community.

Clashes broke out between Copts and Muslims the following day at the funeral of the victim, with one person killed and several wounded.

In November clashes took place in a southwestern neighbourhood of Cairo between Copt demonstrators and police after local authorities refused to allow a community centre to be transformed into a church. Two Christians died and dozens were wounded.

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