CAIRO, Egypt – Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak vowed Saturday to “cut off the hand of terrorism” after a suspected suicide bomber attacked a Christian church in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria and killed at least 21 people as worshippers emerged from a New Year’s Day Mass.
It was the deadliest attack against the country’s Christian minority in more than a decade and the latest in a wave of violence against Christians in the Middle East. Experts said it would stoke growing tension between Egypt’s majority Muslims and Coptic Christians.
“This terrorist act has shaken the conscience of the nation. The blood of our children will not be lost and we will cut off the hand of terrorism,” Mubarak said in a televised address.
While no group immediately claimed responsibility, Egyptian authorities blamed “foreign elements” and experts said it carried the hallmarks of an al-Qaida operation. If the strike was indeed carried out by al-Qaida, it would mark a surprising new security threat in Egypt, a staunch U.S. ally on counterterrorism where security forces normally keep a tight lid on militants.
Nearly 80 people were injured in the attack. Ambulances rushed to the scene where bloodied bodies lay scattered in the midst of glass shards, while blood was splattered on the street and on the church walls.
Clashes erupted throughout the day in Alexandria as Christians hurled stones and bottles at anti-riot police, who used tear gas against the mob. The protesters chanted anti-Mubarak slogans, blaming the government for not doing enough to protect them.
Last fall the Islamic State of Iraq, an affiliate group of al-Qaida, said it would strike against the Coptic Church, which it accused of holding two women against their will after they reportedly had tried to convert to Islam to obtain divorces, which are barred by the Copts.
That incident had been the spark for a deadlier attack on Christians in Baghdad, Iraq, in October, when a team of suicide attackers stormed a church during evening Mass and prompted a shootout with Iraqi commandos that left 58 people dead.
Eyewitnesses in Alexandria said the blast occurred after a car parked outside the church exploded about a half-hour after the stroke of the new year. The blast caused two other cars parked nearby to blow up.